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Antony and Cleopatra

The Independent, 18th September 2012, Paul Taylor

Kim Cattrall has doffed the black wig and reverted to blonde for this revival at Chichester of Janet Suzman’s production of Antony and Cleopatra which began life two years ago at the Liverpool Playhouse. She has also gained a new paramour in Michael Pennington’s Antony whose long snowy-white locks would not look amiss on King Lear.

Cattrall’s Cleopatra is first seen rising through the floor resplendent in a golden mask and cloak like some rock goddess (indeed the armour she later dons would be the envy of Madonna). Both spectacular and faintly tongue-in-cheek, this is a strikingly apt opening tableau for a play that is so exercised by the gap between myth and reality. Age may not wither this Cleopatra, but she’s shown to be a middle-aged working Queen who needs to wear reading glasses when signing official documents.

Moving fluently between the fleshpots of the east, signalled by oriental lamps and divans, and a severely brick-walled Rome, the production is keen to convey an intelligent heroine, who never really loses sight of her own political agenda through passion. She has enough nous to wince at the errors perpetrated by her bungling lover. Cattrall admirably manages to radiate mercurial wit and wiliness without lapsing into any of those tired cliches of camp-diva capriciousness. And she rises to a radiant exaltation when she hymns his glorious attributes in the final scene.

But while it is good to be reminded of the irony that Cleopatra is never fonder of Antony than when he is not there, you cannot believe there was ever a spark of sexual chemistry between Cattrall’s Queen of the Nile and Pennington’s hero who, when he whoops and dances and tries to get the former juices going, seems less like a faded romantic idol than an incipiently senile embarrassment. It’s the interpretation and not this still-vigorous actor that is at fault here and, with his superb verse-speaking, he likewise comes into his own when out of Cleopatra’s range, especially when this veteran campaigner b urns with shame at the way his declining fortunes have corrupted honest men.

The best performance is that of Martin Hutson who brings unexpected wit and sharp ambiguity to the role of Octavius Caesar. He lets you see the blazing passion behind this icily priggish bureaucrat who flinches when he hears of Antony’s decadent exploits but who also wipes the blood off the latter’s sword and respectfully pockets the stained handkerchief like a holy relic.

British Theatre Guide, 20th September 2012, Sheila Connor

Janet Suzman’s fast-moving production is high drama and spectacle from the beginning as, in conjunction with designer Peter McKintosh, Cleopatra’s court is presented as a thing of beauty.

Multiple oriental lights, black flooring and reflections give depth and mystery to the scene as Cleopatra rises from below to stand majestically erect, her back to the audience. This is, however, not exactly the Cleopatra I was expecting. Exquisitely but simply gowned, and with a plain blonde bob, this modern dress production is echoing the conflict between Rome and Egypt to match that between East and West today and, after the dramatic entrance, this was a bit of a surprise, but it all makes sense and soon I had my mind set into gear and began to enjoy.

There are comparisons with the Romeo and Juliet love story, especially in the manner of their deaths, but this is not a young impetuous love but a Queen setting out to seduce in order to cement her right to rule. Antony becomes infatuated beyond reason, but perhaps she is not quite so in love as she professes.

How much is love and how much is expediency is hard to tell. When Antony is away, she puts on glasses and gets on with the business of state - no pining for her - and when he dies she kills herself, but is this for the loss of her true love or more unable to bear the humiliation of being paraded through the streets of Rome as Caesar’s captive?

Kim Cattrall here is no man-eating sex bomb as portrayed in Sex and the City and, according to recent historical research, neither was Cleopatra. That lady’s promiscuous bed-hopping reputation was due to rumours spread by the Roman ruler Octavius Caesar, possibly to avenge the humiliation his sister Octavia suffered being deserted by her husband in favour of his lover, or possibly being denied the pleasure of parading his captive and demonstrating his victory.

Cattrall captures her feelings in expressions, funny when she is not enjoying the musician and shocked and annoyed when Antony orders a messenger to be whipped, ruining her chances of an alliance with Caesar; yet again her main concern is keeping Egypt under her control.

The excellent Michael Pennington as Antony is equally impressive - hopelessly infatuated and unable to help himself - yet the guilt he feels in his dereliction of duty is transparently obvious and the emphasis in the play centres more on the political aspect than the love affair.

The play is complex with characters constantly changing sides in the conflict, but there is a stand-out performance from Martin Hutson as the smart-suited Octavius Caesar is very much the lawyer, putting his case as if in a courtroom drama clearly and concisely - however at Antony’s defeat and death, and his own triumph, his attitude is of regret and sorrow that a man he once admired has been so ruined by his infatuation.

Sound and light play a huge part in this production, and thanks to the artistry and creativity of Sebastian Front and Paul Pyant the effects are stunning, the battle scenes are particularly effective, and the scene changes evolve from the ethereal vision of Alexandria to the more sombre and solid brickwork and iron gantries of Rome in the blink of an eye.

A fine and dramatic conclusion to the Festival and the final show in the Festival Theatre.

The Public Reviews, 16th September 2012, Jane Pink

“We think that Cleopatra was in and out of every famous bed in the known world, due to Octavius Caesar’s efficient spin-machine … which set out to ruin her reputation and totally succeeded” says director Janet Suzman of Cleopatra and we may well come to her story with inbuilt prejudices, but in this elegant production her reputation is justifiably restored. Antony and Cleopatra’s passionate, wild, reckless relationship is in its last days. That Antony is completely enthralled with the Egyptian queen in both his language and bearing, yet we remain unsure of her true feelings for him. There is a marked difference between her attitude to Antony is his presence and in his absence. Her delight in their passionate nights is evident as is the disdain with which she treats him in the day. She seems most in love with him when he away, extolling his virtues and agonizing over his new marriage, as she tries to balance the emotional and political elements of her life.

Peter McKintosh’s simply beautiful set facilitates a seamless transition between scenes. Lanterns and gold embellished textiles reveal the sumptuous excesses of the Egyptian palace; metal ladders and walkways lend a military resonance; and clever use of levels suggests the cold, hidden darkness of Cleopatra’s tomblike monument. Lighting, sound and music by Paul Byant, Sebastian Frost and Corin Buckeridge respectively are used to great effect throughout to create ad sustain a sense of drama, and to evoke both ancient Egypt and Rome. Predominantly monochrome costumes, punctuated by coloured signifiers of status, allegiance and military rank help the audience follow the action that, without knowledge of this period in history, may otherwise be complicated. I also enjoyed a nod to the 1920s Art Deco Egyptian Revival in many of the costumes and accessories.

Kim Cattrall captures the sexual power of Cleopatra without resorting to cliché. The Queen was thirty-nine when she died, and Cattrall portrays her as an experienced, intelligent woman frustrated by those around her, clear about her own desires and ambitions and willing to go to her death to avoid political compromise. Michael Pennington’s Mark Antony is enthralled with the charismatic and powerful Queen, never more so than in the opening scenes when he dances for and with her, tinkling finger bells as he drifts across the stage in softly draped Egyptian cotton robes. The relationship between the two is captivating. Pennington’s portrayal is earthy and honest and plays against the stereotypical Hollywood image of Mark Antony. Equally Cattrall’s Cleopatra is poles apart from her well-known television persona, and she embraces the Shakespearean dialogue with with and warmth. There are strong performances from all cast members, with Martin Hutson’s brittle yet merciless Octavius Caesar being an undoubted highlight. Aicha Kossoko as Charmian allows us a glimpse of both Cleopatra’s cruelty and vulnerability and Harmage Singh Kalirai’s mystical soothsayer quietly adds a sense of the magical.

This co-production with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse closes this year’s Chichester Festival and is an undoubted highlight. Benefiting from having played the role of Cleopatra herself, Janet Suzman’s production brings to depth to Cleopatra’s story and portrays vividly both the end of a tumultuous relationship and of a political era in Rome brought about by the death of Mark Antony. This is a long play, and a reading of the historical context before watching it is undoubtedly helpful but much of the success and joy of this production is in its ability to take the audience along with the story and to reveal the human side of two of history’s most well known characters.

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