Review: Antony And Cleopatra (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 7, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Johnny Carr, Ray Chong Nee, Joseph Del Re, Lucy Goleby, Catherine McClements, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Gareth Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Jo Turner, Janine Watson
Image by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
In Shakespeare’s version of the historical drama, we see Antony of Rome trying to sort out the world’s problems, while his lover Cleopatra of Egypt attends to matters of the heart. A story of two of the world’s legendary leaders is twisted askew in Antony And Cleopatra, and we observe how much the idea of a female ruler was disturbing to the English mind. Under Shakespeare’s depiction, the woman’s decisions are made around the feelings she carries for her beau, but the man is allowed to get on with business as usual, burdened by much more than a love affair.

The production is beautifully presented. Anna Cordingley’s simple solution for set design conveys stately glamour with little fuss or ostentation, and her costumes achieve a remarkable level of sophistication, crucial in making the royal characters convincing. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are similarly attractive, especially impressive when displaying bold choices, although many instances of unintended glare from a reflective backdrop, are more than a little distracting. Director Peter Evans does well in manufacturing a visually captivating piece of theatre; his work with abstract physical movement is particularly effective, but the classic tragedy struggles to find any genuine sense of poignancy on this stage.

Cleopatra is played by Catherine McClements, who brings good humour to the piece, cleverly subverting much of Shakespeare’s inanely “feminised” dialogue. The actor is a powerful presence, and we submit to her queenly preeminence with little effort. Johnny Carr is an intense Antony, charming in his conviction, but a strange interpretation of the role’s final moments, sets the scene for an anticlimactic conclusion to the play. An absence of chemistry between the two leads, further diminishes the potential for greater piquancy in this ancient romance. Moments of drama can however, be found in scenes that feature supporting actor Lucy Goleby, who introduces both vigour and nuance to her depictions, of Pompey and Scarrus, adding excitement and significant tension to the show. Also memorable is the luminescent Zindzi Okenyo, sensuous and strong as Egypt’s maid of honour Charmian.

The women are languid in Antony And Cleopatra. Seductive and emotional, and despite visible attempts to elevate status and meanings around them, Cleopatra’s romantic fixation keeps the story firmly in a sphere of gender inequality. We wish for relationships to help us be better people, who will do better things, but what we see happen between these protagonists is quite the opposite. Love is a destructive and retrogressive force, causing people to lose their minds and weaken their fortitude. Just four years before the play’s first staging, Elizabeth I of England ended her reign, remaining to her last breath, The Virgin Queen, if not for anything true about what men can do to a woman, then certainly for what men can write about women.