The not-so-magic roundabout

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.

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