“Antony and Cleopatra”, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Chichester Festival Theatre (co-production with Everyman Theatre, Liverpool), 2012, featuring Michael Pennington as Antony and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, directed by Janet Suzman

The first and biggest surprise came even before we’d entered the theatre: posters advertising the production featured Michael Pennington as Antony, and, instead of the vigorous middle-aged man beginning to decline into the vale of years that I, for one, usually expect to see in this role, we were presented with a man who is already very much declined: Antony here is an old man with a leonine snow-white mane of hair and beard, glowering at us in truculent defiance. This is not how I had previously pictured Antony: had I not known which play this poster was advertising, I would have suspected King Lear.

Opposite Michael Pennington is the extremely glamorous presence of Kim Cattrall, seemingly unwithered by age, but, perhaps, lacking something of that infinite variety Enobarbus speaks of. But then again, it is not possible for any actress to present that fabulous, endlessly fascinating creature that Shakespeare had written. Indeed, I often wonder whether Shakespeare, a practical man of the theatre, had actually expected this character to be depicted as she is described:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Now, who could possibly live up to this? But then, this is a play in which lays bare the gap between soaring poetic imagination and flawed mediocrity of mere mortals: possibly, Shakespeare didn’t expect anyone to live up to Enobarbus’ depiction: rather, he wanted his audience to contemplate this gap, perhaps even to laugh at it, and yet, at the same time, learn not to be disgusted by the flawed mediocrity, and also to wonder at the sheer power of the human imagination that could transcend it. For, increasingly, it is this transcendence that seems to me to be at the heart of this extraordinary play.

Antony, when he first see him here, dances awkwardly towards Cleopatra, a ludicrous figure, a man who, like Lear, has but slenderly known himself. But unlike Lear, Antony, even at the end, does not quite know himself. When he has to ponder on what really he is, he confesses to being puzzled: he is like those clouds that constantly change shape, as “indistinct as water is in water” – he cannot hold his “visible shape”. Like Coriolanus, that other tragic protagonist of late Shakespearean tragedy, this is a man who is lacking in thought, lacking in self-awareness; and, as his mortality draws close, he is puzzled.

Usually, Antony is presented as a man who, in his late middle age, is tired of all his responsibilities, and seeks nothing more than the pleasure of lying in Cleopatra’s arms: but the extreme age of Antony in this production somewhat changes this. Here, we have an old man who has not outgrown the habits of youth, and who doesn’t realise how absurd those youthful habits are in venerable old age. When, later in the play, Antony imagines sporting with Cleopatra after death in the Elysian fields, he cannot resist reverting momentarily to his dance, forgetting for one brief second the grim reality of the present: the afterlife awaits, and for Antony, the rest is not the silence that Hamlet imagines, nor the damnation that Othello knows he cannot escape: Antony’s rest is but an eternity of youthful dancing in his beloved’s arms.

And yet, Antony seems to love Cleopatra more when she is absent than when she is with him. When they are together, they merely mouth to each other banalities:

There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

Thou art
The armourer of my heart.

Even when Cleopatra bursts into those miraculous lines

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven

she is speaking in the past tense, and is upbraiding Antony. They both speak magnificent love poetry – some of the very finest in the whole range of literature – but rarely to each other. And this production, more than any other I have seen, made me wonder precisely what these two characters feel for each other. That there is a powerful attraction between the two cannot be doubted; but, perhaps, it is not as all-consuming as either may like to think.

Kim Cattrall does not have the variety of vocal delivery that one may ideally wish for in this role, but she conveys, nonetheless, a person who, like Antony, cannot even begin to understand herself. Director Janet Suzman, herself a famous Cleopatra in the legendary Trevor Nunn production in 1973, speaks of Cleopatra’s political nous, but it’s hard to discern much evidence of it in this production: this Cleopatra mechanically signs documents placed before her without even looking at them, and shows no interest whatever in affairs of state. Or even the state of her own battleships, as she calmly assures Antony that she has “sixty sails, Caesar none better”. Antony is a character who had once, at least, taken his responsibilities seriously: even the very serious-minded Octavius can barely contain his admiration for Antony’s past acts of heroism. But there is no suggestion in Kim Cattrall’s Cleopatra of someone who had ever taken her responsibilities at all seriously. It is easy to side with the lovers against the cold pragmatism of Octavius, but Octavius is a leader who can at least consider seriously the concept of “universal peace”: all Antony and Cleopatra seem able to consider by the end of their lives is walking for ever hand in hand in paradise.

Octavius is a difficult character to bring off. He seems to embody all the virtues of puritanism – hard work, abstinence, discipline – all those virtues that are so necessary for the well-being of the world; but he is devoid of poetry, incapable of deriving any pleasure in being alive. In the banquet scene on Pompey’s barge, Antony advises the young Octavius to be a “child of the time”: Octavius’ brief answer – “possess it, rather” – is chilling. Sadly, and inexplicably, this brief reply is cut in this production, but it crystallises perfectly very differing perspectives in life of the two characters. It is Antony’s perspective that is, inevitably, the more attractive, but it is a mistake, I feel, to present Octavius merely as an unfeeling killjoy: his perspective, whether we like it or not, has validity also. Martin Hutson presents Octavius as, by nature, a very passionate man, but also as a man who knows that he needs to curb that passion: thus, his grief on hearing of the death of Antony, emerges, as it should, as a genuinely heartfelt lament, and not merely as an embarrassing piece of cant. This Octavius is also, at least to begin with, in awe of Antony, and conscious of his own lack of stature in Antony’s presence: in the conference scene in Act 2, he is both angry with Antony, and yet, at the same time, somewhat intimidated by his rival’s very presence. If Antony is an old man still playing at being young, Octavius is a youngster – and very recognisably a youngster – who, despite his inexperience, understands what his duty entails, and who spurs himself, though not always very successfully, to rise to it. Meanwhile Antony, without any self-awareness or self-restraint at all, sinks into mere unthinking hedonism and bluster. Octavius may still not be a likable character, but nonetheless, he demands our respect. It is a marvellous performance.

Only Enobarbus disappoints – rather surprisingly, given that it is performed by the experience old hand Ian Hogg. His big speeches about Cleopatra should ideally be spoken with a relish indicating Enobarbus’ own infatuation with the Egyptian queen, but here, they pass for very little. Neither his desertion of Antony, nor his remorseful death, makes the dramatic impact it should.

As for the production itself, it may be described by those sympathetic to it as “uncluttered”, and those less sympathetic to it as “bland”. The sets, on two levels, are mainly functional; and one could certainly have wished for a bit more imagination in the Egyptian scenes, which appeared here to be taking place in some tacky night-club with a few Oriental trappings. But the main thing, for me, is that there was no eccentricity or quirkiness to distract from those glorious words: it is in those words, after all, that the drama is contained, and I much prefer a functional production, such as this, that doesn’t obscure the language, to some grand directorial statement in which Shakespeare’s language and construction take second place. Others who prefer the director and designer to show stronger hands may disagree.

But what drama it is! I really do not know why this play appears to obsess me so much (I have written about it here, here, and here), but even mediocre performances can leave me breathless with excitement. It is a play in which two deeply flawed and frankly rather ordinary people are raised to the most exalted level by the sheer power of Shakespeare’s soaring, poetic imagination. This particular production may not go down in theatrical history as, say, Trevor Nunn’s 1973 RSC production, but I left the theatre last night feeling exhilarated.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on September 18, 2012 at 4:15 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this review Himadri.

    I too am fascinated by this play. I believe that you mentioned several months ago that you had planned on attending this. When I heard who was in the cast I was intrigued.

    This sounds like an extremely interesting way that Antony was portrayed. Though I think that I prefer an Antony who exhibits a little less of the pathetic.

    I have only seen Kim Cattrall in a very limited number of movies. Based upon my very superficial knowledge of her she seemed perfect for the part of Cleopatra.

    Reply

    • Kim cattrall was certainly convincing, but ideally, I think I’d have preferred a greater range in terms of vocal delivery. A few years ago, I saw Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart in these roles, and while comparisons are bound to be invidious, I did feel that Harriet Walter had a wider range of expression. I was also very impressed by Frances Barber in the BBC audio recording. Kim Cattrall, did, however, look the part: one could understand why Antony was so besotted – who wouldn’t?

      Looking around the net, mostreviewers seem disappointed by this production, complaining of a lack of sexual chemistry between Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington. I actually took this is an interpretative decision: these are people more in love with the concept of love itself than with each other, and, although they aren’t sufficiently self-aware to realise this, are looking in what they imagine to be their all-consuming passion for a reality that is greater than themselves. What their real emotions are, they themselves do not know. It seemed to me a valid interpretation.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Sandra on September 22, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Sorry. I meant think not thibk.

    Reply

  3. Great review, Himadri. I agree about Kim Catrall’s vocal range – I suspect her plummy accent required all her effort and stopped her being more flexible, but I’d have to see her in something else to judge.
    I’ll be posting my own notes soon – we saw the first performance and a later one, and the improvement was significant

    Reply

    • Hello Sheila, and thank you for that.I look forward to reading your review. I had a quick look through your theatre blog, and will certainly be revisiting: it seems to promise hours of good browsing!

      Regards, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Charlie Stevens on September 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    I started to re-read the play before going to see it (on the 15th) and remembered what a difficult play it is. There are many minor/supporting characters and it’s not always easy to distinguish one from another. Doubling up sometimes in the production made for an uncomfortable view: Lepidus disappeared but the actor re-appeared as someone else and was recognisable as the former Lepidus. Confusing.

    That may sound like a minor criticism but it spoke to a failure to come to terms with the play. This was apparent, too, in some of the speaking of the verse. Lines were lost or swallowed in an occasionally hurried delivery: I sometimes felt the actors knew the audience had to leave dead on 10.50 and were going to keep to that. Ian Hogg is a really good actor but even he, as Enobarbus, seemed to lose his conviction in speech from time to time. I thought Michael Pennington was good but would rather have seen a lotus eater than a madcap. Kim Cattrall delivered a sensual skittishness but left me wondering why she had been so highly praised before.

    It was a really interesting theatrical evening and I’m glad to have seen the Chichester version, but I was left with the unsettling impression that at the curtain even the cast weren’t terribly convinced by what they’d done.

    Reply

    • Hello Charlie, I take your point about the doubling: this can be especially awakward if the actor in question carries across his or her own persona into different characters. Sometimes, thoug, it works: Pompey and Thidias were played by the same actor (Oliver Hoare) and there didn’t seem to be much problem in distinguishing between the two. but yes, Antony and Cleopatra, like Julius Caesar, is teeming with minor characters, and it’s hard to see how this can be pulled off without doubling. But the play itself is, for reasons cannot entirely artculate (although I have tried in a number of earlier posts) a huge favourite of mine, and I ususally come to teh end of it, either in the theatre or in teh study, feeling elated. And this production – although it perhaps won’t go down as one o fteh greatest productions o fthe play – is no exception.

      (May I recommend, by the way, the BBC audio production: following the text while listening to it is a wonderful way to experience this work. I have written about it here.)

      I too was disappointed by In Hogg’s performance, but can’t help wondering whether he just had a bad night. (After all, I have had bad days in the office, and would hate to be judged purely on the basis of one of my bad days!) Michael Pennington’s Antony, as you say, would rather be a lotus-eater than a madcap, and that is surely his interpretation of the role: and it strikes me as a valid interpretation. As for the lines lost or swallowed in hurried delivery, I can’t say I noticed that on teh night we were there (we were there on the evening of Saturday September 15th): I suppose in the theatre each performance is different. It is certainly an unpardonable fault if that is what happened on the night you saw it, as the words in Shakespeare are all-important, and clear enunciation seems to me a prerequisite of a successful performance.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

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