Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
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.
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.