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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Novello Theatre, London

By Patrick Marmion

All plays need good actors, but casting is unusually critical to Antony and Cleopatra. William Shakespeare's epic of late, extravagant love absolutely stands and falls on the right pairing in the title roles. That's why in the last 100 years, however wayward their acting, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor remain the benchmark for the twin colossi of the ancient world, distilling all their shabby grandeur. But in this new Royal Shakespeare Company production transferred from Stratford Upon Avon, Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter make one of the feistiest and most original pairings of recent times.

As crazy bunny-boiling Cleos go, Harriet Walter is comparatively restrained as the Queen of the Nile. But her apparent self-possession is not to be mistaken for temperance. Instead of expending energy in violent attention seeking mood swings, she is simply and sublimely not bothered by the romantic carnage she trails in her wake. Walter's Cleo is not a classic beauty, but still trim and curvy in middle age she has a cool-headed sexual charisma which belies her deeds and is only to be discovered by they who dare scale her peaks. And as she leads Antony a merry, dilatory, dance, shipwrecking his military career on the rocks of her affection, she allows her wanton glamour to rack up interest in its own good time.

Nor is Stewart any less confident of his sexual status. The sixty year old thesp is scantily clad for much of the action, happy for all to see and admire his improbably toned physique. He has even allowed a mangy ring of furry hair to circle his famously smooth scalp. His baritone voice meanwhile rattles and booms like thunder exactly as Shakespeare prescribed and he drags along not just Antony's fearsome reputation as a great warrior of antiquity, but also a global reputation as the plumy skipper of the Star Ship enterprise. Cometh the hour, cometh the man - and that's what the grateful ladies of a certain age in the row behind me felt too.

Otherwise there is a slight feeling in Gregory Doran's production that the director's work is done in bringing these titans together. Much of the rest of the play is schematically stitched up, fleshed out with sweeping gestures and broad brush strokes. The action is pumped up with the aural steroids of deafening drums and wailing reeds, amplifying the traditional music of the middle East almost beyond endurance. Subtlety is vanquished in this ceremonial bombasticism, especially in the creepily incestuous relationship between Caesar and his sister who is disastrously married to Antony in order to cement a political alliance. But if too little attention is given to the interludes between Walter and Stewarts' lubricity, it is entirely in keeping with the disdainful munificence of the central couple who bestride the pettier parts like colossi.


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