The Berliner Ensemble's Antony and Cleopatra must be the first account of Shakespeare's great play in which the hero, prior to the final battle, is seen applying lipsalve. He performs this operation with consciously cod narcissism in front of mirrors held up by Cleopatra's handmaidens. Kitted out in a rumly assorted ensemble (Lawrence of Arabia costume, ancient breastplate, beads and binoculars), Gert Voss's superb Antony seems to be debunking his own myth in a spirit of despairing, reckless jocularity. As far as that process goes, he has a very willing accomplice in the director Peter Zadek, whose production offers a compelling, queasily anti-heroic slant on the play, emphasising those elements that undercut the lovers' word-drunkenly glorified estimate of themselves.
Although it runs at just under four hours and without an interval, it's so focused and light on its feet as to be an endurance test only for the bladder. Simply staged against a yellow, desert-like surround, the production re-sites the proceedings in the world of post- Great War colonialism (morning suits, khaki uniforms, see-through harem trousers) and it's a transposition that enables Zadek to present a thoroughly deromanticised picture of the warfare in the play.
Self-interest is the only ideal discernible, a feature which this version rams home. Watching previous productions, I don't remember even noticing one detail: the dead body of the otherwise unseen Pacorus, who is butchered in a tit for-tat killing. Here, a sickening sight, the corpse is suspended upside down by the revengers, one soldier holding a degradingly unnecessary pistol to its blood-caked head.
Such effects might seem to push the piece closer in spirit to the cynical 'wars and lechery, wars and lechery' reductionism of Troilus and Cressida. What is impressive about this staging, though, is the way it manages to avoid either gloating or indulging in Brecht's brand of odiously clever moral superiority about the past. True, the irresponsibility and ridiculousness of the lovers are conveyed to us, shorn of glamour. They are a pair who, at a crucial point in their fortunes here, can subside into the cackling prank of Antony spitting wine in virtuosic arcs into Cleopatra's gaping mouth. And the botched character of his suicide is conveyed in all its grim farce, the soldiers' struggle to heave the dead-weight of his dying body up to Cleopatra in her monument having, as a spectacle, all the visual dignity of, say, an attempt to cram an elephant into a mini.
Yet it's impossible to keep a prim distance from either of them. Voss takes you deep inside the frustrations of having Antony's complicated, fatally self-indulgent nature, so you feel that, deep down, he too pays the price of even his pettiest actions, such as increasing Thidias's torment by casually slinging brandy over his scourged back. Eva Mattes as a low-slung, raven-tressed Cleopatra may not give an equally layered performance. She looks too young, for a start, and is better at conveying the character's sexual opportunism and bored caprices than the wit and quicksilver elusiveness that keep men hooked on her. None the less, she does assume an impressive, hushed majesty in her suicide scene, even if the myth-revising production does not allow her to keep her crown on. As Cleopatra's head slumps in death, this elaborate gold object doesn't just tilt awry: it topples with a depressing clatter to the ground.
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