Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 29 March 2005.

Reviewed by Richard Wood
Sheffield Hallam University

Wood, Richard. "Review of Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 29 March 2005". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 18.1-5<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revrwant.html>.

Directed by Braham Murray. Designed by Johanna Bryant. Battle Choreography by Mark Bruce. Lighting by Vince Herbert. Sound by Steve Brown. Music by Tayo Akinbode. Fights by Renny Krupinski. Musician: Dan McDonald. With Tom Mannion (Antony), Josette Bushell-Mingo (Cleopatra), Steven Robertson (Caesar), Terence Wilton (Enobarbus), Sarah Paul (Charmian), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Iras and Octavia), Fergus O'Donnell (Dercetus), Joseph Mawle (Philo and Clown), Chris Hannon (Alexas and Seleucus), Everal A. Walsh (Soothsayer and Eros), Ali Sichilongo (Mardian), Will Tacey (Lepidus, Thidias and Watch), Simeon Truby (Dolabella and Sentry), Glenn Chapman (Scarus), Jack Lord (Maecenas, Schoolmaster and Diomedes), James Howard (Agrippa).

  1. Following the recent success of Greg Hersov's production of Ben Jonson's Volpone without Sir Politic and Madam Would-be, also for the Royal Exchange Theatre, Braham Murray offers a new Antony and Cleopatra minus Pompey and his retinue. Although such drastic cuts allow for a rattling pace, which brings the action to a close after an apparently brief three hours, they also create several problems for the sense of the play. Members of the audience navigating their way through the play's complex political landscape for the first time are aided by informative tracts on Roman history displayed on the walls for interval reading. Nevertheless, lessons in history cannot fill the gap left in the presentation of Shakespeare's characters (especially that of Antony) by the omission of those key scenes from Act Two.

  2. Before the action begins, melancholy North African music signals both the exoticism of Cleopatra's court and the tragedy that is to unfold. The production itself opens with Antony and Cleopatra making love on a pedestal dominated by an oversized scarab; the proximity of the scarab (the dung beetle of Egyptian art and myth) highlights the lovers' tragic fate from the outset. Designer Johanna Bryant's simple but effective set has an Egyptian court, denoted by familiar golden iconography, standing opposite silvered pillars of Rome. A stone floor, engraved with both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Roman numerals, occupies the ground (and sometime sea) between them.

  3. In the round space of the Royal Exchange such a setting might imply a play equally divided, both literally and figuratively, between Egypt and Rome. Yet, in no small part due to the absence of Pompey, Murray's production loads the Egyptian side of the dramatic equation to the detriment of the play as a whole. Without Pompey, not only is the necessity of Antony's departure from Egypt obscured, but also much of the play's use of the peculiar nature of Roman honour - typified by Pompey's rebuke to Menas, ''Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour; / Mine honour, it' - is lost. In this production, Antony begins as more 'strumpet's fool' than 'triple pillar of the world', and although Tom Mannion's performance is subtle and multifaceted, he struggles to convey any sense of the warrior so important to Octavius Caesar. The battle scene, dimly lit yet sharply choreographed, does however create a real sense of menace, not least for the front row of the audience, for whom any temptation to stretch their legs must be resisted. The actors' precise control of their weapons is matched by their wielding of synchronised oars, as the round floor becomes the stormy Mediterranean.

  4. Tilting the balance of the production even further towards the African shore of this dividing sea, the seductive portrayals of Shakespeare's Egyptians steal the show. A notable highlight comes early on, when Sarah Paul's Charmian and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Iras interrogate the shamanic Soothsayer (Everal A. Walsh) about their fortunes, drawing out every last inch of bawdy laughter before being interrupted by Cleopatra's entrance. Indeed, this production is both halted and driven forward by Josette Bushell-Mingo's Cleopatra: she sets the pace. Much as the vagaries of Cleopatra's emotions entrance Mannion's Antony, so Bushell-Mingo dictates the dramatic intensity of the scenes in which she appears. Her Cleopatra is by turns achingly sensual and dangerously enraged, but always eerily centred; hers is the most physically and psychologically appealing performance, achieved without affectation or accessory; even the asp is barely visible.

  5. Unfortunately, the Romans, whether enjoying the decadence of a savoured cheroot in Egypt or the smoke-free asceticism of Rome, appear bound by the very buckles on their peculiar boots. And, although this provides a workable contrast with the barefoot liberty of the Egyptians, the performances often also appear unnecessarily leaden in their delivery. Apart from the scene immediately before his death, when Antony scorns Roman attire, and the arrival of the relatively sprightly and youthful Octavius (Steven Robertson) at the scene of the Egyptian queen's demise, the Romans never approach the energy necessary to complement that of Bushell-Mingo's Cleopatra. Ultimately, this Royal Exchange production leaves its audience with the impression of a solitary performance of a solitary queen.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).