Antony and Cleopatra, The Globe, 26 May 2012
This Turkish production by Oyun Atölyesi suffered from injudicious cuts and consequently felt rushed. The final scene in particular was inexplicably and unnecessarily truncated, producing a real sense of incompletion.
Which was a shame because its central cast, Zerrin Tekindor’s Cleopatra and Haluk Bilginer’s Antony, made for a glamorous and entirely believable couple.
Antony was a middle-aged greybeard, very much along the lines of Darrel D’Silva’s recent Antony for the RSC. He wore a touch of decadent eyeliner, which hinted at the influence of Cleopatra, who was younger and looked stunning in her low-cut white dress. Her eyes were accentuated by blue shading and black lines to create the classic Cleopatra almond shape.
A chaise longue formed a permanent fixture stage right. This item of furniture, interestingly enough, has sometimes been claimed as an Egyptian invention.
Cleopatra used it extensively to sit, recline and lounge, so that it became inextricably linked with her presence.
Because the chair remained in the same place, even during scenes not set in Egypt, the symbolic association with the Egyptian queen enabled it to be utilised by other characters to demonstrate their attitude towards her.
Enobarbus, played by Turkish Globe regular Kevork Mailikyan, greeted Antony by sitting on the chaise longue, spreading his legs as he said “What’s your pleasure, sir?” as an introduction to a series of bawdy jokes about Antony’s affair with Cleopatra.
The Romans, in black leather corsets that could have been borrowed from the recent RSC Measure for Measure, also made use of the symbolic item of furniture. Despite being firmly located in Rome, Caesar (Mert Fırat) stroked the chaise longue when talking of the debauchery of the Egyptian court.
The stage convention that permitted him to engage in this tactile relationship with Cleopatra’s chair meant that Caesar’s criticism of Antony’s “voluptuousness” was undercut by the suspicion that he secretly wished to join in.
For Caesar the chair had become an object of fascination and attraction. This opened up intriguing possibilities for the inner workings of his character in the light of his own severe restrictive leather corsetry.
In Messina, Caesar’s rival Pompey (Emre Karayel) also pointed at the chaise longue when referring to Antony’s dalliance in Egypt.
At the start of act five, shortly after Antony’s suicide, his sword was presented to Caesar at his camp near Alexandria. Caesar took the blade and triumphantly stabbed its point onto the chaise longue in symbolic victory, despite, yet again, not being in its direct presence.
Zerrin Tekindor made the most of Cleopatra’s love of self-dramatisation and unapologetic changeability. When Antony was told of the death of his wife Fulvia, Cleopatra had a look of sparkling optimism in her eyes. When feigning illness to gain Antony’s sympathy she convulsed comically as if about to throw up.
Grieving over Antony’s absence, she draped herself backwards over the edge of chaise longue, so that her head almost rested on the ground.
The extremes of her reactions to the news, both good and bad, brought by the hapless messenger, provided a series of comic interludes.
When the messenger brought Cleopatra the pleasing news that Antony was alive, she got Charmian (Gödze Kırgız) to shower him with gold coins. But when he got round to mentioning Antony’s marriage to Octavia, she grabbed his face, pushed him away, and then slammed his head on the ground before threatening him with a dagger. Not surprisingly, he tried to hide behind one of the stage pillars.
When he returned with his description of Octavia (Evrim Alasya), his unflattering and wholly inaccurate report was delivered in panic. He gestured with his hand near the ground to indicate her lowly stature. Believing this ridiculous account unquestioningly, Cleopatra and her women then laughed hysterically at the unreasonableness of her former jealousy.
The production hit upon an ingenious way of staging the sea battles that determined the outcome of the war between the opposed factions.
As the two forces faced each other, Antony and a Roman soldier engaged whirled small water-filled sacks about their heads on long ropes. The sacks were slightly porous so that much of the water flew out, wetting the stage and most of the cast.
Cleopatra walked between the two of them and Antony followed her, which represented her desertion of the battle and Antony’s retreat. After the water fight, one of Antony’s soldiers lay injured to symbolise his defeat.
After the final water sack battle, where again Cleopatra’s flight resulted in defeat, Antony used a whip to lash Cleopatra’s chaise longue.
Antony had previous form for whipping. Caesar had sent Thidias (Muharrem Özcan) to smooth-talk Cleopatra into betraying Antony. Once in Cleopatra’s presence, Thidias turned on the charm. He knelt before her and offered her a necklace in an ornate box. She took the necklace and put in on, so that when Thidias was caught by Antony kissing her hand, he really did look like a rival, gift-bearing suitor. Faced with this provocation, Antony had Thidias whipped.
But despite its excellent main cast and theatrical inventiveness and intelligent use of a main prop, the production was let down by a strangely rushed ending.
It began well enough with a messenger bringing Antony news of Cleopatra’s death, causing Antony to freeze in horror and grab the messenger’s hand, holding onto it for comfort.
Eros (Onur Ünsal) killed himself rather than kill Antony, who attempted suicide but survived long enough to hear from Mardian (Zeynep Alkaya) that Cleopatra was still alive. Dispensing with any attempt to stage the hoisting of Antony up into Cleopatra’s monument, Antony simply arrived in Cleopatra’s chamber and flopped onto the chaise longue and died with Cleopatra clinging on top of him.
When cornered by the Romans, Cleopatra made no attempt to stab herself. The brief sequence in which Cleopatra had her treasurer give Caesar a list of her possessions, with clever Cleopatra making a point of wearing the necklace Caesar had sent via Thidias, ended in her fake rage at Seleucus’s (Onur Ünsal again) apparent admission that she had kept some valuables back.
Hastening to its conclusion, the production then saw Kevork Malikyan’s Peasant bring Cleopatra an asp, which she clasped to her chest on the chaise longue before expiring.
And that was it. Iras (Tuğçe Karaoğlan) did not die broken-hearted, nor did Charmian decide to join her mistress by inflicting a snake bite on herself. No final speech by Caesar spoke of Antony’s nobility.
There was no time pressure necessitating this restricted body count. The production was made to feel unnecessarily truncated and incomplete.
Antony & Cleopatra, Roundhouse, 17 December 2010
My second view of this RSC production marked my first ever visit to the company’s London base at the Roundhouse in Camden.
In contrast to the excitement I had felt after seeing it at the Courtyard, my reaction this time round was one of disappointment at a production gone flat.
It is difficult to pin down exactly what was different. It could have been the weather dampening enthusiasm generally, or the long journey I had made to an area that does not stand comparison with the West End for its amenities.
The performance was the second of only eight of this particular production. So the cast could have been returning with cold enthusiasm to roles that were not going to occupy them for very long.
The cohesiveness of the company formed over a long Stratford run seemed to have all but evaporated, and this affected the feel of the play. It was like looking back in time to an earlier stage on the production’s journey when the cast had only just begun to find their footing.
The things I had originally enjoyed about the production were still there: Kathryn Hunter’s flailing, universally-jointed elbows for starters. Down in the cheap seats at the front of the side stalls a group of young people nudged each other and giggled as Kathryn’s arms scythed their way through one of Cleopatra’s more effusive displays of high-maintenance womanhood.
The running gag that saw Charmian and Iras changing outfits to match Cleopatra’s fresh apparel for each new mood and environment was as funny as it had been earlier in the year.
As before, John Mackay’s dour Caesar kept his equally meagre but inexpressive elbows firmly clasped to his sides as he plotted his mechanical path through the intrigues with a thin-lipped coldness that out-chilled the wintry weather.
Darrell D’Silva again managed to raise a chuckle as he stroked his wholly silver head of hair and assured us that his grey merely did something mingle with his younger brown.
The hilarious messenger sequences still made me laugh as the poor servant was gradually worn down until he fearfully told Cleopatra that Octavia was short, low-voiced and bald.
But I came to the conclusion that there was something about the venue itself that was sucking the life and joy out of the experience. And it was something more than the temporary feel, the insubstantial seats of what is known as the ‘Roundyard’ structure.
This was partly due to the acoustics. The Courtyard is not perfect, but here at the Roundhouse I really noticed the extent to which the voice levels dipped when actors turned upstage.
Whereas at the Courtyard the naval battles had been suggested by a blue sheet billowing and neat sail-shaped pieces of material representing the ships, here the sails were just shawls limply held aloft.
I have no idea why the original sail props were not used, but their absence was very noticeable. The blue sheet representing the sea had been stored in the flies of the Courtyard. Here, in a temporary theatre with no basement or substantial flies, it just billowed out from behind the centre doors of the set.
These technical shortcomings have implications for future London transfers of Stratford productions.
The RSC recently announced a five-year deal to use the Roundhouse for its London season. The company also said that it would work with other London theatres to stage productions.
If the Roundyard temporary theatre does not compare favourably with the Courtyard, then how much greater will be the feeling of inadequacy when it is assessed against the recently rebuilt, all-singing, all-dancing Royal Shakespeare Theatre?
The new theatre boasts both a 7m fly tower and a 7m basement, which, it is promised will enable an entire Forest of Arden to be summoned from either above or below at the press of a button.
The acoustics have been tuned so that someone at the back of stalls will be able to hear the static crackle from a spear-carrier’s doublet.
If future RSC productions are designed to take advantage of all the RST has to offer and audiences agree with Michael Boyd that it is the finest space for playing Shakespeare anywhere in the world, then what Lenten entertainment should we expect when these productions are transferred to a converted engine shed?
If a stark distinction between Stratford and London emerges, then I will want to get my second look at future RSC productions at the RST, rather than opt for the geographically closer but technically inferior transfer at their London base.