The Best Cleopatra

Antony & Cleopatra, The Globe, 1 June 2014

The decorative tiring house of the Globe was covered in upright planks of wood painted red. The stage pillars were left untouched, while the luxuriousness of Cleopatra’s court was suggested by blankets and cushions ready on stage for the first scene.

But it was the long pre-show with its increasingly frenetic dancing that created the required atmosphere of decadent exoticism into which wandered the upright messengers from Rome.

As the play proper began (1.1), the messengers commented on how Antony was in thrall to Cleopatra, something the audience soon saw for themselves as the Egyptian queen (Eve Best) entered wearing knee-length trousers and a man’s shirt, brandishing Antony’s sword with the air of a pirate. Antony (Clive Wood) wore a loose-fitting gown topped off with a floral coronet. The two of them scampered around wearing each other’s clothes, something that would be referenced later in the text.

There were bored groans for her entourage when the messengers from Rome were mentioned. Cleopatra continued her skittish sarcasm about the latest instructions from Caesar.

Antony’s sense of fun continued to assert itself. When he commented that “The nobleness of life is to do thus…” he kissed Cleopatra passionately, demonstrating that his idea of true nobility was rather more Egyptian than Roman.

He approached the messengers and snapped to attention causing them to respond obediently in kind, before undermining the martial rigour of the moment by insisting in a camp voice “Speak not to us” followed by a swift, tripping exit with a delighted Cleopatra.

The Soothsayer (Jonathan Bonnici), his face painted blue, told both Charmian (Sirine Saba) and Iras (Rosie Hilal) that they would outlive their mistress (1.2). This prediction would not prove accurate for Iras who would in fact die before the queen.

Cleopatra entered with a sheet wrapped round her, indicating that she and Antony were in mid act when he had left her after being struck by “a Roman thought”. Once he entered, Cleopatra and her women turned and left in a tight group, pointedly and slightly comically looking away from Antony as they passed him.

Antony learnt from the second messenger that his wife Fulvia was dead.

Phil Daniels’ lugubrious Enobarbus greeted the news of Fulvia’s death by looking on the bright side with his smock/petticoat analogy, while a still pensive Antony sat on the steps down into the yard.

Eve Best portrayed a wonderfully petulant Cleopatra making her pretend sickness, a game at Antony’s expense, much more than a silly girl’s prank (1.3). She doubled over in feigned illness when Antony appeared. Her sarcasm and bitterness about Fulvia were an expression of her assertiveness rather than a indication of weakness.

Cleopatra’s satisfaction on hearing of Fulvia’s death was instantly replaced by her complaint that Antony had not wept for her. Her restoration to health with the words “I am ill and quickly well” was both comical but also a positive demonstration of her ability to adopt moods and conditions as and when it suited as if by royal prerogative.

The first scene set in Rome (1.4) showed the Romans in vaguely Jacobean costume. Caesar (Jolyon Coy) was young-looking with well-groomed blond hair. His neatness of appearance indicated a certain puritanical asceticism.

Back in Egypt, servants used ropes to pull a platform from the tiring house (1.5). On the platform was a bed on which Cleopatra lounged, her white outfit matching the white sheets of the bed. The servants who had brought the bed on stage then pulled on ropes that caused fans in the stage to canopy to waft back and forth. Cleopatra lay on her stomach and asked Mardian (Obioma Ugoala) to stop singing before joking with him about his affections.

She envied the “happy horse” that might at that moment have been bearing Antony’s weight in her place. She imitated Antony mockingly when she imagined him asking “Where’s my old serpent of Nile?” adopting a vaguely working class London accent. Her delivery of the following phrase “For so he calls me” was equally telling because it showed that Cleopatra loved the fact that Antony had this particular name for her. This fitted well with Cleopatra’s subsequent praise for Antony’s “well-divided disposition”.

Pompey (Philip Correia) and the pirates learnt that Antony had joined the other Romans and was coming after them (2.1).

For the big meeting in Rome the SPQR banners were unfurled from the tiring house (2.2). A long table was placed across the stage with Caesar and Antony taking up opposing positions at either end. The distance between the two rivals along the length of the table matched the frosty atmosphere.

Octavius claimed that Antony had ignored his letters and had thus “broken the article of your oath”. This accusation was the trigger to release Antony’s suppressed anger: he lifted up his end of the table and banged it down forcefully and noisily onto the stage in response to his honour being questioned.

Enobarbus commented cynically that the opposing parties could feign friendship and then return to their dispute afterwards.

Agrippa (Daniel Rabin) proposed that Antony should marry Caesar’s sister Octavia, and she appeared on stage so that we could see her cold disposition. But despite the apparent amity engendered by the forthcoming marriage, Antony made it plain that he still harboured a grudge. When Caesar offered his hand to seal the deal, Antony gripped it powerfully and pulled Caesar forcefully towards him before moving away. What could have been a gesture expressing amity and impending familial connection became instead a power play hinting at future conflict.

Enobarbus was left behind with Maecenus (Ignatius Anthony) and they began to talk about life in Egypt. Maecenus asked if the rumours of their gargantuan feasts were true, to which Enobarbus replied that they had had “much more monstrous matter of feast” in a coarse, suggestive tone that hinted at sexual activity in addition to the gourmandising.

Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra beginning “The barge she sat in…” was wonderfully delivered and, coming from Phil Daniels, brought home how this most poetic and majestic of descriptions was written to be spoken by a simple soldier who is otherwise earthy and cynical.

Octavia (Rosie Hilal) demonstrated her cold-blooded nature by refusing to kiss, so Antony bade her goodnight by patting her hand (2.3). Antony asked the Soothsayer “whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?” Underling the foreboding nature of the prediction, when the Soothsayer replied “Caesar’s” the SPQR banners lining the back wall all fell to the ground simultaneously.

Antony realised that he should return to Egypt. His instructions to Ventidius were cut, allowing scene 3.1 to be cut later.

Scene 2.4 was cut allowing Antony and Cleopatra to stand on stage next to each other as the end of 2.3 overlapped the start of 2.5. This allowed the production to dramatise the strong connection between these two eponymous characters.

They spoke alternate lines: his ending of 2.3 “I will to Egypt.. I’ the east my pleasure lies” followed by her start to 2.5 requesting “music, moody food of us that trade in love”. Although dramatically separate, Cleopatra leant towards him as if able to smell him, pointing to her more sensuous and instinctive nature, another difference between Rome and Egypt.

Cleopatra fancied a game of billiards with Charmian, but she passed and suggested the queen play with Mardian (2.5). Cleopatra warmed her hand and was just about to put it down Mardian’s trousers, when she changed her mind fearing he might “come too short” all of which indicated an ulterior meaning behind the intended “play”.

The queen fancied fishing instead and, continuing the theme of games as sexual metaphor, looked around the front of the yard for likely men. She held out her crooked finger like a hook with which she was angling, before descending the steps to kiss one saying “Ah, ha! You’re caught!” She commented on some cross-dressed fun she had had with Antony in which he wore “tires and mantles” and she wore his “sword Phillipian” which we had seen at the start of the performance.

This playful frivolity set the tone for the sequence with the messenger from Rome.

On seeing the Messenger (Peter Bankolé) approach, Cleopatra panicked that this meant that Antony was dead. She gratefully offered the Messenger gold when he reassured her that this was not so. The gold she offered was in form of her own bracelet and anklets, which she removed and piled on a stage pillar ledge as a visual reminder of her generosity.

Her reaction to the Messenger’s caveat “But yet…” was as wonderfully comic as could be expected. When he finally divulged that Antony had married Octavia she slapped him hard on the face with an audible crack, then slapped him with her hands some more. She forced him down onto his back and pulled on his head to hold him upright as she promised him riches if he said Antony was not married. When he confirmed Antony indeed was, she threw him backwards to the ground and then grabbed a fruit knife to threaten him. The terrified Messenger ran off and Cleopatra would have pursued him had she not been restrained by Charmian.

The still angry Cleopatra wanted the Messenger to return. She checked herself and realised that she had to put on a pretence of calm. She offered a not very convincing “Though I am mad, I will not bite him”. She dug her knife into the stage but Charmian found this insufficiently reassuring. Cleopatra subsequently acquiesced and handed it over.

Apprehensive

Charmian escorted in the apprehensive Messenger who threw himself prone on the ground. She once more resented hearing his bad news and scared him away, but gave Alexas (Kammy Darweish) instructions that the Messenger should be employed to report back on Octavia’s appearance.

The Romans agreed a peace with Pompey and arranged a feast to mark their concord (2.6). Menas (Sean Jackson) thought that the marriage of Antony and Octavia meant a firm alliance between Antony and Caesar, but Enobarbus concluded that Antony had “married but his occasion”.

The staging of the party scene took advantage of the large expanse of the Globe stage (2.7). A big vat of drink was brought out and the men danced vigorously in a circle to the tune of the text’s “Cup us till the world go round”. Caesar sat at the side refusing to join in the festivities.

Antony once again showed his contempt for Caesar. He spoke drunkenly to the reticent Caesar ostensibly on the subject of Egyptian agriculture. But at the phrase “scatters his grain” Antony’s supposed imitation of the grain scatterer was clearly a wanking gesture, which then at “comes to harvest” culminated with a mock ejaculation directed at Caesar’s face.

Menas, critical of the peace deal, drew Pompey aside and the pair conversed while Antony drunkenly described a crocodile to Lepidus (James Hayes). This action froze allowing Menas to tempt Pompey with the idea of killing the three triumvirs. But while Pompey would have applauded the assassinations had they been carried out without his prior knowledge, he could not in good conscience give prior approval for them.

The riotous company had been drinking healths to all and sundry, especially to Lepidus who became so drunk that he had to be helped away. They now turned on Caesar chanting his name repeatedly to cajole him into some revelry. Despite their warm enthusiasm, he replied coldly “I could well forbear it” to which Antony wearily countered “Be a child o’th’ time”.

Antony then roped Caesar into the next drunken dance that ended with Caesar being carried on their shoulders as they chanted his name. But they stumbled and Caesar was sent sprawling onto the floor, an indignity that he did not appreciate: he protested angrily “What would you more?”

This brought the festivities to an end. Pompey was so reconciled to Antony that he was able to feign aggressive indignation at Antony’s seizure of his father’s house but then assure him with joshing familiarity that they were now friends.

As Enobarbus departed, he announced “There’s my cap” putting his tankard on his head to show it was empty.

The brief scene showing Ventidius and Silius in victory was cut (3.1).

After the farewells and departure of Octavia and Antony from Caesar (3.2), the action returned to Egypt (3.3).

Cleopatra’s messenger, again afraid to enter her presence, lay prone on the ground. The queen had been working on a sampler and as she stood to listen to reports of Octavia’s appearance the sampler became a stress toy on which she vented her anxieties, particularly after hearing that her rival was only 30.

She stood downstage facing the audience looking over her shoulder to enquire after Octavia, foregrounding both herself and her fretful sewing. She paused for a particularly long time and sewed extra nervously before asking about Octavia’s age.

But she was able to put her worried behind her when she exuberantly greeted the messenger’s account of Octavia’s unattractiveness.

Antony and Octavia agreed that she should return to Rome to make peace between her new husband and her brother (3.4).

Eros told Enobarbus that Lepidus had been taken prisoner by Caesar after having outlived his usefulness in the war against Pompey (3.5). Lepidus was marched in chains across the stage, down into the yard and outside to illustrate this plot point.

Caesar’s complaints about Antony and Cleopatra’s behaviour in Egypt were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Octavia on the stage right walkway (3.6). Caesar regretfully informed her that her new husband was not, as she had assumed, in Athens but had taken advantage of Octavia’s absence to return to Cleopatra in Egypt.

At end of the scene Antony and Cleopatra processed out through the tiring house centre doors in magnificent ceremonial costumes and proceeded down into the yard where they were showered with gold confetti by audience members on the front row of the middle gallery (who had found envelopes containing confetti and bearing instructions on their seats when arriving in the theatre). The gold theme linked back to the reference in Caesar’s speech at the start of the scene describing them as sitting “in chairs of gold”.

This spectacular display of pomp heralded the interval.

The second half of the performance was preceded by a pre-show. The Soothsayer muttered incantations to himself as he cut open a dead goat and examined its entrails, the smoke of incense wafting about him. He evidently foresaw trouble: he became agitated by what he read in the entrails at which point Caesar and Antony appeared and faced off against each other as if dramatising his forebodings.

A tattered map unfurled on the back wall showing the Mediterranean as the Egyptians laid plans (3.7). Ready for battle, Cleopatra wore an armoured breastplate, the same one worn by Frances Barber in the Globe’s 2006 production.

Antony insisted on fighting at sea against Enobarbus’ recommendation to fight on land. Cleopatra became bored with Enobarbus’ insistence and leant against a stage pillar and ho-hummed. A Roman soldier allied to Antony remarked that they should fight by land and that the Egyptians should be left to “go a-ducking”, which produced an outraged look from Cleopatra. She drew close to Antony, who was defensive of her.

The two opposing armies appeared side by side so that the very brief successive scenes 3.8 and 3.9 could be run together with Antony giving battle orders immediately after Caesar.

The sea battle took the form of two men bearing the flags of the armies swinging around on ropes, the centrifugal force of their rotation separating them as they were lifted high above the stage (3.10). As they descended the SPQR flag fought off the Egyptian banner: a woman representing Cleopatra left the stage and the bearer of the Egyptian banner followed . This was a schematic and balletic way of representing a sea fight, and certainly a better solution than using model ships.

The scene ended with a verbal description of how Cleopatra had left the battle and Antony had followed her.

A downcast Antony spoke to his men and told them to take his gold and flee (3.11). Cleopatra nervously observed at the side with her entourage before speaking with him. He was angry at her, but they kiss and make up.

The Ambassador to Rome (James Hayes) requested that Antony be allowed to live a private man (3.12). Caesar refused but was willing to be lenient with Cleopatra if she handed over Antony. Caesar sent the Ambassador back and also dispatched Thidias (Jonathan Bonnici) to win Antony from Cleopatra.

Hearing of Caesar’s refusal from the Ambassador, Antony sent message back that he wanted to fight Caesar (3.13). During this scene Enobarbus stood far over on the stage left side separate from the others so that his cynical asides became the justifications of an outsider for his subsequent defection to Caesar.

Cleopatra agreed to accept Caesar’s terms as conveyed by Thidias. She offered her hand for the envoy to kiss. He went down on one knee to do so, where he was caught in flagrante delicto by Antony. The jealous Antony flew into a fury and had Thidias taken offstage to be whipped. Antony furiously berated Cleopatra for her alleged inconstancy.

Thidias was brought forth with vicious bloody stripes on his back, which Antony made a point of striking to exacerbate the pain. This callous act was even more shocking than the unseen offstage whipping.

Cleopatra looked in sorrow at her companion and asked dolefully “Have you done yet?” In those few words Eve Best managed to convey the idea that the game was indeed up. Cleopatra’s reticence was not just a comment on this immediate situation and Antony’s outburst, but showed that she realised that Antony’s reaction to Thidias was a symptom of his weakness not a demonstration of his strength.

This episode meant that their power was finished: Caesar had effectively won. Cleopatra had the insight to realise that the bright day was done and they were for the dark, as Iras would subsequently put it. She had seen that Antony was weak, because, like Leontes, only a weak man is capable of that kind of jealousy.

Cleopatra protested that she was not cold-hearted towards Antony in her flowing, eloquent speech about the discandying of poisoned hail. The force and evocative imagery of her assurances caused Antony to be reconciled with Cleopatra and he folded his hands around her. Cleopatra remembered that it was her birthday and they agreed to have a party. Enobarbus meanwhile decided that he definitely had to leave them.

A brief return to Rome saw Caesar decide to fight against Antony (4.1). But his resolution to make war was undercut by the plaintive tone in which he whined “He calls me boy”.

Antony gathered servants, who stood in a line as Antony bade them a kind of gloomy farewell (4.2). Denying his sorrowful mood only made Antony seem more morose.

The night before the battle some soldiers heard music under the stage (4.3).

Cleopatra helped Antony strap on his armour, but mistakenly attempted to fasten his wrist guard round his ankle (4.4). He kissed her warmly before going off to battle.

Antony heard that Enobarbus had deserted to join Caesar and sent his treasure after him (4.5). As Antony ruminated on his absent comrade, Enobarbus made an early entrance for the following scene turning his presence in this scene into a vision experienced by Antony. This also meant that Antony’s cry of “Enobarbus” was directed at him.

Caesar made ready and ordered that those who had fled from Antony should be at the front (4.6).

Enobarbus emerged from the back and was left alone to rue his treachery. His sense of wretchedness worsened when a soldier informed him that Antony had forwarded his treasure to him. Only a ditch was good enough for him now.

The second battle also involved the flag bearers (4.7). The soldiers of the two armies ran back and forth at each other, but then the stage cleared leaving the flag bearers once again to spar at each other. The SPQR colours were eventually chased away by the Egyptian standard. The schematic representation of the battle contrasted with the attention to detail in its aftermath as soldier Scarus (Obioma Ugoala) sported, exactly as he described, a scar on his arm in the shape of an H.

Antony celebrated victory with Cleopatra, who emerged from a party within the tiring house in a white dress and floral garland (4.8). In a comic touch commensurate with their upbeat mood, Antony made his soldiers turn away before he kissed her.

Enobarbus appeared by himself with no guards or soldiers observing his final moments (4.9). This increased the power of the scene because Enobarbus seemed more helpless for dying alone and unobserved.

When he called on Antony to forgive him, his former master appeared from the stage right side door and walked like a ghost in a straight line right past Enobarbus without acknowledging him, then off at the other door. The appearance of Antony to Enobarbus here mirrored Antony’s earlier fevered vision of Enobarbus. The staging of this vision was made more credible by there being no one else on stage. The soldiers only appeared once Enobarbus had collapsed to carry him away.

The armies of Antony and Caesar appeared side by side on the large stage enabling the two brief scenes 4.10 and 4.11 to be delivered rapidly before the armies headed off.

Battle

Another battle of the flag wavers resulted this time in victory for the SPQR banner as the Egyptian flag was dropped (4.12). Antony declared “All is lost” at which point the map of the Mediterranean that had adorned the back wall all this time fell ominously to the ground.

Cleopatra walked up the stage left slope in a long white dress, her eyes full of tears, but left after Antony roughed her about, blaming her for the defeat.

Cleopatra and her women headed for the monument and she instructed Mardian to tell Antony that she had killed herself (4.13).

Antony hinted to Eros (Peter Bankolé) that he wanted to die (4.14). When Mardian brought news of Cleopatra’s supposed death, this only encouraged Antony further in his desire to “overtake” her.

He asked Eros to strike at him with his sword. Preparing for the fatal blow, Antony shielded his face with his arm. This enabled Eros to draw his own sword, but then at the decisive moment he drove it into his own stomach.

Antony was full of admiration for Eros’ noble action and tried to follow his example by dying on his own sword. He cut at his stomach with the blade, but the movement was drawn out and jagged, not swift and decisive.

He crouched looking despondently at his stomach waiting for the blood to spout, but nothing much happened. He had injured himself, but at this rate death would be a long time coming. Antony waved his hand in front of the wound as if inviting the blood to issue forth. This looked like the impatience of an actor at a failed special effect, but was in fact Antony’s frustration at his poor handiwork, the quality of which was confirmed when the guards entered and Antony told them “I have done my work ill, friends.”

Alexas, not Diomedes, told Antony that Cleopatra was still alive. As he took in the news, he glanced down at his wound and laughed, before turning skywards to shake his head at the heavens in scorn. He asked to be carried to Cleopatra.

The main stage was used to represent the monument rather than any of the upper spaces above the stage (4.15). This had the advantage of keeping the action of the scene close to the audience.

Cleopatra, dressed in white, gathered with her women to observe Antony being carried by his soldiers through the yard. He was deposited just below the top of the stage left ramp. This enabled the final ascent into the monument, often involving a direct vertical lift, to be staged by having a rope attached round Antony with Cleopatra and her women dragging him the final few metres onto the main stage.

This was an ingenious way of having the scene take place on the main stage, but using ropes to drag him such a short distance up a shallow ramp looked odd. However, this was preferable to a more realistic staging that would have then positioned the couple somewhere in the tiring house gallery.

Once on the stage, Antony repeated that he was dying. But his immediate request “Give me some wine” felt comically inappropriate for someone near death.

Any questions about the staging were soon forgotten as the production went on to deliver one of its most powerful effects.

Cleopatra’s tight embrace of the bleeding, dying Antony meant that her pristine white dress became smeared with his blood, creating garish stains which would remain distinctly visible for the remainder of the play.

Antony died, slumping lifeless in Cleopatra’s arms after a final audible exhalation just as she reached the word “melt” in her summary phrase “the crown of the earth doth melt”. But she was soon on her feet holding her women close by her exclaiming “Ah, women, women! Come, we have no friend/But resolution and the briefest end” with a plaintive expression that lent the moment an air of poignancy. The scene ended with the dead Antony being dragged offstage by Cleopatra and the others.

Although the seizure of Antony’s sword by Decretus was cut from 4.14, he now brought this sword to Caesar who eulogised his dead opponent (5.1). Caesar sent Proculeius (Sean Jackson) to accept Cleopatra’s surrender and to arrange for her to be brought to Rome.

The stage was set for the final scene with the entry of Cleopatra’s golden throne (5.2). It was wheeled in from the tiring house on a platform. Its eagle’s wings were so wide that they folded back to pass through the tiring house doors and unfolded to their full impressive dimensions once the platform was in position.

Proculeius met with Cleopatra, who was washing her hands in a bowl to clean off Antony’s blood. He was all diplomatic unctuousness, giving her vague assurances that Egypt would be given to her son as she wished.

But then the ambush was sprung: other soldiers rushed in, one descending by rope from the tiring house in the equivalent of a special forces raid and took her prisoner despite her attempt to flee.

Cleopatra grabbed a knife and gestured with it at her wrist and then towards her stomach, but was disarmed. She would rather die in a ditch than be carried to Rome and have Octavia laugh at her.

Sat on the throne plinth talking with Dolabella (Philip Correia), Cleopatra went into a rapturous description of Antony, which was delivered very effectively. Dolabella admitted that Caesar intended exhibit her in Rome like so much war booty.

Caesar entered stage left, prompting Cleopatra on the far right side of the stage to crouch in obeisance face down on the ground together with one of her women, while the others crouched similarly stage left. Caesar could not distinguish which of these identically dressed bowed figures was Cleopatra, prompting his question “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” She eventually revealed herself by tentatively raising her hand while still facing downwards.

Caesar was polite but warned her of the dire consequences for her children if she killed herself. She looked appalled at this prospect, which Caesar noticed and quickly reassured her that her compliance would ensure their safety: “To that destruction… [Cleopatra panics], which I’ll guard them from…” This minor detail should be born in mind when admiring her nobility at the end. Acquiescing in her capture, she accepted that she would become a “scutcheon” for Caesar to display.

Interestingly, the entire sequence involving Cleopatra’s list of treasures as well as the false testimony and fake outrage of her treasurer was cut. This removed a relapse into levity from the final movement of the production so that a sense of impending tragedy was maintained. The lines from roughly 5.2.135-185 were cut.

Caesar departed offering more reassuring words.

In view of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, Iras’ line:

Finish, good lady. The bright day is done.
And we are for the dark.

began to look like something deliberately designed to take account of the late-afternoon indoor playhouse gloom. It certainly did work late on an early summer evening at the Globe.

Cleopatra did not whisper to Charmian, so that Iras’ request that she “finish” interrupted Cleopatra’s preceding complaint about Caesar, silencing her with a gloomy image invoking the twilight of their glory and pacifying her annoyance at being “boyed” by Caesar.

Dolabella confirmed that Caesar intended to send Cleopatra and her children away in three days. She imagined out loud what their capture would look like. She looked down at the groundlings when referring to the “mechanic slaves” that would breathe over them, a delightful nod to the constituents of the original audience. The reference to “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness” was another reminder of the original performance conditions.

She asked Charmian to fetch her best attires. But this only involved her serpent crown and cloak.

The snakes were brought by the simple rustic man (James Hayes) who provided some comic relief with his user guide to “the worm”.

Cleopatra donned her robe and crown adjusting it on her head. She looked up into the air as she wistfully uttered that great line “I have immortal longings in me” and then “I am fire and air” etc. She kissed Iras who immediately collapsed in her arms and fell to the ground dead roughly stage right.

The queen feared that Iras would meet dead Antony first, so hastened to the throne and put the asp basket in her lap. She sat upright and clasped the asp to her, in a very subtle and delicate sequence that in a large outdoor theatre was not particularly grandiloquent, but which would have been ideal for a smaller indoor venue where such small-scale actions would be easier to observe.

No second asp was applied to her arm. After just the one asp bite, she sat bolt upright with her hands rigidly placed on the arms of the throne and died remaining firmly in position without slumping. Her eyes stayed open until Charmian shut them.

Her dead figure was still wearing the dress stained with Antony’s blood, which added something earthy and real to the gilt spectacle of her own suicide. She wore the stains like a badge of her attachment to her dead lover.

The guards discovered that “Caesar hath sent… too slow a messenger” as Charmian took the asp herself and died stage left.

The guards, Dolabella and then Caesar discovered the grisly scene. Caesar paid his final tribute to the Egyptian queen.

At the start of the production’s run there was no concluding jig, just curtain calls. But the jig was included later on, but with Clive Wood not taking part.

Conclusions

The production managed to evoke a sense of Antony and Cleopatra’s world falling apart, with Cleopatra recognising in sorrow that Antony’s whipping of Caesar’s messenger was a symptom of his impending downfall.

Eve Best made a welcome return to the Globe stage and managed to combine Cleopatra’s uber-femininity with sufficient steeliness to suggest a warrior queen. She was flighty but also fighty.

With the production subsequently transferring to the indoor candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, viewing it outdoors became an exercise in spotting moments that did not quite work in the Globe and would be played differently indoors.

If the Globe’s Titus was a clanging empty vessel, this was a production of lasting substance.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, 31 August 2014

The production transferred into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for two performances on 31 August and 1 September 2014.

The staging of the battles had to be altered which meant that the performances lost some of the aerial work that looked so impressive on the outdoor stage. On the other hand, exploring the indoor space offered new staging possibilities that enhanced some moments in the production.

The lighting scheme was initially simple with six candelabras at the standard height of 8ft with the shutters closed for the whole of the first half.

The preshow was fitted onto the smaller Playhouse stage with the advantage that Charmian and Iras were now able to dance in the pit aisle and flirt was audience members there, while still being connected to the onstage action. This was not practical on the Globe stage, where the party was kept firmly on the main stage.

Antony and Cleopatra entered through the pit aisle onto the stage as they engaged in their horseplay. Cleopatra jumped over the balustrade into the front row of the lower gallery and then stood on the balustrade for her first lines. These opening moments demonstrated that there is great scope for audience interaction in the Playhouse.

That the Playhouse audience is so easily accessible by the actors both in the galleries at the side and in the pit, makes the Playhouse a better space for audience interaction than the Globe where steps into the yard are not always present and the distance involved in making a trip among the groundlings is that much greater.

Another instance that demonstrated this point was when Cleopatra sat on a spare seat in the pit and looked at Antony like an expectant spectator as she ordered him to “play one scene of excellent dissembling” by crying for Fulvia and pretending his tears were for her.

The cast also used handheld candles for practical and symbolic purposes. Cleopatra used a four-candle handheld when reading her book; Octavia carried a single candle for her silent walk around the stage front, introducing her character when Antony’s marriage to her was first suggested.

Cleopatra occasionally played with candles in sconces, an action which made her appear skittish and playful. This was an instance of Playhouse fittings providing an opportunity for character exposition.

For practical reasons the large banners that adorned the back of the Globe stage were completely absent.

Pompey and his associate appeared in the musicians’ gallery for their first scene and the rear two candelabras were raised to their highest level in order to illuminate them.

Cleopatra fished for a lover in the pit and found a somewhat reluctant fish.

The big party scene was crammed onto the comparatively small Playhouse stage. Caesar was still born aloft on the shoulders of the revellers and dumped onto the stage despite all the candelabras remaining in their standard position just 8ft off the ground.

The first half ended with the same gold glitter shower as Cleopatra and Antony paraded out the pit aisle.

Keeping to the pattern of the Globe staging, the Soothsayer and goat were on stage as the audience returned for second half.

The back four candelabras were raised to their highest position for the first battle. The front two ascended for the night-time watch scene (4.3), with the guards carrying handheld sconces.

The battles were reduced in scope. There was no aerial work for the first battle. The opposing flags were waved at each other to represent the fight. Interestingly, the part in which the siren lady representing Cleopatra circled around the flag bearers and led away the Egyptian flag appeared clearer in the Playhouse because the action was tightly focused.

Antony’s admission of his final defeat “All is lost” did not trigger the collapse of the absent banner, so their submission was indicated solely by the troops collapsing to the ground.

Enobarbus had Luna on the Playhouse roof to address when imploring the Moon (4.9).

The back four candelabras were lowered for the monument scene (4.15) and they were all lowered for the arrival of the throne minus its wings (5.2).

The main stage of the Playhouse was used to represent the interior of Cleopatra’s monument just as in the Globe. Antony was brought through the pit aisle to the stage front and shoved up onto stage, then dragged across it a short distance.

The soldiers that seized Cleopatra rushed on to the stage from the aisles of the adjoining lords boxes. None of them abseiled down on to the stage.

Disappointingly, the lighting did not reflect the supposed darker conditions in an indoor playhouse towards the end of an afternoon performance. This meant that “Finish, good lady…” was one of the production’s brightest moments rather than being a nod to the fact that gloom was descending.

The presence of candlelight allowed Cleopatra to look up at the candles when remarking “our lamp is spent” (4.15).

The smaller, at times slightly cramped, Playhouse stage caused a slight problem for Eve Best as she approached the throne for the play’s climatic suicide sequence. Iras had collapsed dead on top of the end of Cleopatra’s train, which meant that when Eve Best started on her final steps, she was obliged to tug on the train in order to free it. She tripped and fell back onto the throne knocking it slightly sideways, the angle of the throne detracting somewhat from the geometric simplicity of Cleopatra’s upright, still figure.

Eve Best

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Jonathan Pryce’s Lear

King Lear, Almeida London, 6 September 2012

A set dominated by bare brick rear wall with doorways and upper level windows and galleries, together with some vaguely ancient British costume, gave the production a medieval feel.

The first scene (1.1) began in a tone that was surprisingly flat and underpowered with Kent (Ian Gelder), Gloucester (Clive Wood) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) forming a completely static group.

But it really took off with the arrival of the Lears and became intriguingly inventive.

A throne was placed centre stage ready for the arrival of Lear (Jonathan Pryce) who arranged his Regan (Jenny Jules), Goneril (Zoe Waites) and their husbands stage right. He took Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) by the hand and gave her pride of place in a spot by herself stage left. The tactility between the pair evidenced their closeness.

A map was rolled out on the ground and Lear, enacting his unburdening, took off his crown and placed it on the throne.

Regan went to speak first, but Lear gestured to silence her and called on Goneril to start. The two eldest delivered their oleaginous speeches, each in turn being rewarded by Lear with a coronet. They briefly stood on the area of the map gifted to them before returning to their husbands. Cordelia rose briefly and addressed the audience for her asides.

Turning his attentions to Cordelia, Lear did not wait to hear her speak but placed a coronet on her head immediately. This subtly preferential treatment was accompanied by yet more tactile and affectionate intimacy between the king and his favourite daughter.

They stood close together holding hands and Lear then held her gently by the upper arms, exhorting her to speak. He looked surprised at Cordelia’s “Nothing”, but continued to hold her.

When he asked for further explanation, Cordelia playfully pulled him aside and, still holding him, gently explained how she merely returned her duties, looking past Lear at her sisters as she mocked their insincerity.

Lear’s anger was expressed by his gentle touch becoming a controlling clutch. The original easy hold over her upper arms became a rigid, furious grip with which he shook her as he disclaimed all his paternal care. He let go only to snatch the map from the floor, crumple it into a bundle and throw it aside, telling Cordelia “hold thee from this for ever”.

Cordelia stood motionless with tears in her eyes, not understanding why her candour had provoked such ire.

Lear snatched the coronet from her head and tossed it at Cornwall (Chook Sibtain) and Albany (Richard Hope), which was an interesting way of working in the coronet referenced at this point.

Kent argued with Lear and ended up on his knees to hear Lear proclaim his banishment. He accepted it stoically, prefiguring his subsequent uncomplaining service.

Of the two suitors for Cordelia’s hand, Burgundy (Andrew Nolan) was rather stilted in his speech compared with the imposing figure of France (Ben Dilloway). Cordelia stood centre stage, faced us and listened as Lear, over stage right, asked if Burgundy was still interested after her fall from grace.

When France spoke, Cordelia was visibly moved by his sentiments. Having been silent for over 100 lines, Cordelia was spurred to speak by this support from France. She turned and mockingly apologised to Lear for not having “that glib and oily art”. Her anger cowed Lear so that his “Better thou hadst not been born…” was quiet, almost defensive, rather than a loud rant. Cordelia was similarly dismissive towards Burgundy when he declined a dowerless bride.

France came forward and held Cordelia to seize upon her and her virtues. He escorted Cordelia off, but she broke away from him to return and castigate her sisters. Cordelia’s pointed afterthought was received with an icy coldness, particularly by Regan who retorted “Prescribe us not our duty”.

Soliloquy

Edmund spoke in a vague northern accent to deliver his humorous soliloquy about his bastardy (1.2). Gloucester (Clive Wood) fell easily for his letter trick and became outraged at Edgar’s apparent plot against him.

Edgar (Richard Goulding) appeared with his arm around a servant girl. Edmund stuffed some cash into her hand to get her to leave them alone. Unlike his bastard half-brother, Edgar had a southern accent, which to this London audience rendered him the good-guy in comparison.

Edmund got straight down to the question about when Edgar had last seen his father. The references to “sectary astronomical” and to eclipses were cut. Together with his womanising, this made Edgar seem less of a studious weed and more like a lad who could fight.

After a brief scene in which Goneril instructed Oswald (Steven Elliot) to ignore Lear (1.3), Kent adopted a rustic accent to disguise himself (1.4). Lear and his party entered with the hunters hanging up a deer and draining its blood into a bucket.

Oswald, a strong figure, ignored Lear’s summons. When called back, he stood toe to toe with Lear, looking down at him. This physical intimidation made the disguised Kent’s tripping of Oswald a feat truly worthy of reward.

The Fool (Trevor Fox) was a Geordie whose playfulness was a complete delight. His doggerel was accompanied by a magic trick. He collected handkerchiefs from those around him, stuffed them in his coxcomb hat and got someone to tug on a protruding end and extract a string of handkerchiefs tied together. On a textual note, the original “brach” was changed to “bitch”.

The sweet and bitter fool jest was followed by an egg trick in which the Fool split the egg in two over Lear’s head. It had no yolk and looked like a magician’s prop. The Fool went quiet when Goneril entered.

Increasingly despairing at his treatment, Lear held his hands out and gazed around in disbelief saying “Does any here know me?” His words were not said in despair but rather with energetic sarcasm. This same energy also informed his head-beating and the horrific sterility curse he pronounced on Goneril.

At l.288 things became decidedly sinister. Lear approached Goneril and stood close to her. He kissed her full on the lips, menacing “Thou shalt find that I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever.”

Goneril pulled away in disgust and wiped her mouth. She asked husband Albany “Do you mark that, my lord?” which in context became a clear reference to Lear’s inappropriate behaviour. She was shocked for quite some time after.

The sequence looked like a threat of abuse, something confirmed by a similar sequence later on involving Lear and Regan.

Albany was greying and middle aged. He was quite meek, which would later justify Goneril’s dissatisfaction with him and preference for Edmund.

A brief scene between Lear and the Fool saw more filleting of the Fool’s remarks with his heels/kibes joke cut (1.5). It culminated in Lear desiring not to be mad as the Fool, taking pity, held and comforted him.

After Curan’s exposition about the arrival of Regan and Cornwall and the dispute between the dukes, Edmund called on Edgar to leave (2.1). He cut himself and sent the watch looking for Edgar the wrong way.

Our first extensive look at Cornwall showed him to be a man with a regal bearing, who either thought himself a monarch or was close to monarchical ambitions being fulfilled. His seizing upon Edmund sounded like a king appointing a favourite. In particular his “natures of such deep trust we shall much need” indicated that he had plans for the future that required assistance.

Syllable

Kent met up with Oswald again (2.2). Kent’s rant was strangely edited so that it ended with “if thou deniest the least syllable” cutting “of thy addition”, a phrase presumed too difficult to understand.

Their fight was brought to an end by the arrival of the others, but principally by Cornwall’s imperious shouting and threat. It was indicative of the difference between their characters that Gloucester merely enquired what the matter was, but Cornwall actually brought the fight to an end.

The references to Sarum plain and Camelot were cut, again presumably to avoid confusion.

Cornwall further cemented his alliance with Edmund by addressing his joke about Kent’s plainness to him, mocking Kent’s accent, with his arm jocularly around Edmund’s neck.

Cornwall also took control in ordering Kent to be put in the stocks. Again, this was not his house to give orders.

The stocks were plunged into darkness as Edgar ran in with the sound of his pursuers audible offstage (2.3). He opened a tile in the floor to find refuge. Some of his pursuers passed over the stage, causing him to curl into a ball and begin his Poor Tom act. Taking him for an innocuous madman, they left him alone and continued their search.

Lear was angry to discover Kent in the stocks (2.4). During his jesting, the Fool’s ant speech was cut and he took his riding crop to beat down the eels in the pie.

Confronted with icy Regan, Lear begged sarcastically for food. Then sarcasm turned into something more distasteful.

Lear gripped hold of Regan and there was something distinctly unfatherly about the way he looked at her. When he said he hoped that she would not “oppose the bolt” against his “coming in”, Regan was very uncomfortable. He gripped her wrists and she flexed her fingers as if wanting to escape his grip.

When Goneril entered, Lear ducked to one side and held his head in his heads, then looked heavenward to comment sarcastically about the unwelcomeness of this arrival.

The sisters rounded on Lear, driving him into greater frustration. A storm was brewing outside. Lear threatened “the terrors of the earth” but the sisters were unmoved and Lear seemed ineffectual. The Fool, tactile as ever, took hold of Lear and gradually eased him offstage as he continued to rave. His final words “I shall go mad” indicated his parting mood.

Kent and the Knight met for the expository scene in which we learnt about Lear’s open air wanderings and the conflict between Albany and Cornwall (3.1). The Knight was sent on his way to Dover.

Lear rushed on stage to the noise of the storm illuminated from below through a long thin aperture (3.2). He leant forward into the wind as the Fool held on to him, trying to hold him back. The Fool’s previous supportive hold was now one of restraint.

The tempest looked effective, but such quasi-filmic stagings can feel quite dull and clichéd.

The storm was kept quiet enough for Lear to be heard, which meant it was not sufficiently loud to justify his description of it.

Kent led Lear away, leaving the Fool to deliver his prophecy. His Geordie accent rhymed “water” with “matter” so that we got something approaching Original Pronunciation.

Gloucester and Edmund appeared for the brief scene in which the old man showed Edmund his traitorous letter (3.3).

Lear and party re-entered and tried to gain access to the hovel down the trap (3.4). Edgar appeared as Poor Tom wearing a loin cloth with his hair matted. The audience laughed quite loudly and distinctly at Lear’s questions to Poor Tom about his supposed daughters.

Lear took a liking to the beggar, nodding vigorously as Poor Tom related how he had come to his condition. Gloucester came to escort Lear indoors, but the king was comically distracted by his conversation with Tom. Crucially, Edgar did not overhear his father commenting on his grief at Edgar’s supposed treachery.

Cornwall and Edmund appeared in the gallery above the main stage providing a dramatic setting for Edmund to show his father’s letter to the Duke (3.5).

Shelter

Lear and his companions entered the shelter and the king began to put his daughters on trial (3.6). He had Edgar and the Fool sit on a bench and made them put their hands on their heads. He then sat between them in the same posture and put the stool on trial. Regan was represented by a coat stuffed on top of the stool. Lear swiped at the stool and coat throwing them to one side and then complained that his daughters had escaped.

All throughout Poor Tom’s madness was trimmed, possibly to restrict it to his more comprehensible utterances. As a consequence, Lear became the focus of the scene rather than Edgar.

Lear was comical when he looked askance at Edgar’s dishevelment, which he described as “Persian attire”. Touches like this meant that this scene showed more of Lear’s madness than the previous storm scene.

Kent laid the king down on a bench and Lear made a fuss of drawing invisible curtains around the bed. He noticed a cut on his finger and looked at Poor Tom as if this signified that they were kindred spirits because of their injuries. Gloucester came to warn them of the plot against Lear in order that they could escape.

Edgar’s last speech in the scene, describing seeing our betters “bearing our woes”, was said in his normal voice. The Fool overheard him talking as himself, but said nothing.

Cornwall began the blinding sequence by sitting in a chair literally holding court and acting like an authority figure giving orders (3.7). This was typical of him throughout. He vacated the chair which then gained another use to pinion Gloucester. There followed a standard gunge application blinding.

Regan tried twice to attack the servant who had assaulted Cornwall, cutting him both on the leg and the back of neck. Cornwall flicked Gloucester’s other eye at the servant to the audience’s disgust.

Once Cornwall’s work was done, the female servant (Alix Wilton Regan) who had watched in awe during the blinding came forward and tended to Gloucester. The stage went dark, and then the lights came up on a sprig of flower centre stage. The interval came at this point, and more such sprigs were planted around the stage for the start of the second half.

Edgar met Gloucester who was being led by the female servant who had cared for him, now identified as one of his tenants (4.1).

All Poor Tom’s odd utterances about Obidicut, Flibbertigibbet etc. were cut. This had the effect of making him seem more normal. Edgar escorted his father as they set off for Dover.

Arriving outside her house, Goneril instructed Edmund to return to her brother-in-law and bade him an unambiguous farewell (4.2). She spoke coyly of “a mistress’s command” and took a ring from her finger which she put on Edmund’s little finger (not a chain round his neck) before kissing him.

She spoke in frustration of “the difference of man and man” and leant up against the wall with her hands behind her back. She writhed teasingly when Albany entered and told him “I have been worth the whistling”.

Albany was scathing, but Goneril seemed secure in Edmund’s affections which now emboldened her to disdain her husband, mocking him with her “Mew!”

Regan seemed pleased to hear of Cornwall’s death, saying “one way I like this well”. But for some reason her follow-up “another way the news is not so tart” was not included.

Scene 4.3 was cut, so the action continued with Cordelia in a blue dress adorned with a cloth chest piece (4.4). She was steely but vulnerable when expressing her concern about Lear’s distracted condition.

Regan tried to obtain from Oswald the letter that Goneril had sent to Edmund (4.5). Another strange textual change saw “oeillades” changed to “eyes”. Bearing in mind that the production had virtually sold out to the Almeida membership, and the rest of the tickets had been snapped up by the keenest of theatregoers, such elaborations on allegedly difficult words were not really necessary.

Cliff

Edgar led Gloucester to the cliff edge whereupon he just fell and tumbled to one side (4.6). Edgar comically muffled his voice in order to seem far away.

Lear rushed in wearing a floral crown. He brandishing a coin when referring to coining and the mad play involving archers, mice and cheese was amusing to watch. When declaring himself “every inch a king”, his voice became haughty as he gestured at himself.

Describing the lechery of “the fitchew” and “the soiled horse”, Lear gestured with two fingers poking up into “the sulphurous pit”, which he then had to clean before Gloucester could kiss his hand. He pointed his rear at Gloucester when asking him to read the challenge.

Amazingly the audience did not burst into gales of laughter at the remark about “a scurvy politician”, which some people interpret as Shakespeare taking a shot at Westminster style politics.

Lear wanted Gloucester to take his boots off. He put his hands together as in devotion and turned the “great stage of fools” lines into a sung prayer. But this moment of reverence was short-lived and Lear was soon spitting in anger about killing his sons-in-law.

Lear tried to escape from Cordelia’s men by running, but he was caught immediately.

Oswald tried to kill Gloucester, but was prevented by Edgar, who did not exaggeratedly disguise his voice as suggested by the text. After killing Oswald and finding his letters, Edgar carried Oswald offstage before returning for his father.

Kent was reunited with Cordelia and resumed talking in his normal accent (4.7). Lear was wheeled onstage in a chair. Cordelia was curt and insecure when giving orders to her followers.

She kissed her father who awoke by simply opening his eyes. Lear looked at her thinking she was a spirit.

Cordelia threw herself on ground before him, but Lear lifted her up again and looked at her closely, eventually recognising her.

He held her gently by the forearms adopting the same pose in which he had originally disowned her. This mirroring was a nice touch.

The conversation between Kent and the Gentleman with the joke about report being changeable was cut.

The sisters met again along with Albany and Edmund for the council of war (5.1). As Albany and Edmund left to discuss the forthcoming battle with “the ancients of war” Goneril wanted to follow him, but Regan discouraged her. After Albany received Edgar’s letter, Edmund comically summarised his dilemma at having to choose between Regan and Goneril.

After a brief scene in which Edgar carried Gloucester away, telling him that Lear had lost (5.2), Cordelia and Lear were brought onstage (5.3). They appeared quite free and unfettered when led in by Edmund, so it was not immediately obvious that they had been captured.

Lear was almost childishly happy to be going to prison with Cordelia. But with the two warring sisters together again, a spat was not far away. Their argument over Edmund was cut short when he was arrested by Albany, who witheringly pointing out to Goneril that his own wife Regan was contracted to marry Edmund. Goneril’s rejoinder “An interlude!” was cut.

Regan exited sick with poison as Edmund awaited a challenger. Edgar wore a cloth helmet with steel reinforcement. This was strong enough to look like protection but not so restrictive that his voice was muffled.

In a great two-sword fight, Edgar managed to deprive Edmund of one of his weapons and finished him off. Goneril rushed in to bewail Edmund’s injury. Albany confronted her with the letter. Failing to snatch it, Goneril ran off claiming that “the laws are mine”, threatening Edgar briefly as she left.

Edgar told Edmund his full story and, recounting the death of Gloucester, paused in between “burst… smilingly”. Edmund seemed genuinely moved, and this motivated his revelation of the threat to Lear and Cordelia. But Albany was nevertheless angry at him for what he had done. Edgar’s speech about the banished Kent was cut.

Neither Goneril’s nor Regan’s body was produced on stage. No sooner had someone run off with Edmund’s sword to reprieve Lear and Cordelia, than Lear appeared at the back cradling Cordelia’s limp figure in his arms. Jonathan Pryce held her quite easily.

He placed her on the ground and continued to cradle her. He held her so that she faced him, her almost prone body stretched out to the side and behind him. This semi-upright posture kept both of them equally visible to more of the audience. The configuration emphasised the limpness and frailty of Cordelia’s obviously dead body in a way that would not have been possible if she had been lying prone.

Lear’s tenderness over her was touching. After asking the others to look at Cordelia’s lips, Lear collapsed in a fit, shaking with tremors and then died. This was more effective than a simple fading faint, as it marked a definitive end.

The stage lights faded to black on Edgar’s closing words.

Conclusions

The production made Cordelia seem wise and adult despite her playful tactility towards her father. Cordelia was by status a child, but by temperament the most mature. Goneril and Regan were the exact opposite, having the status of older siblings but the impulsive immaturity of children.

Most puzzling was the decision to imply incest between Lear and both Regan and Goneril. If Lear was a serial abuser, did this mean that Cordelia was also a victim? If not, why did Lear spare her, but apparently regard her as his favourite? If so, with Goneril and Regan motivated by revenge, was Cordelia’s attitude a different form of rebellion or was she in denial or even acquiescent in her own mistreatment?

The lack of clarity on this matter made subsequent theorising about the backstory incredibly difficult.

The second time I saw this production on 11 October, Jenny Jules was delayed and the performance started with Alix Wilton Regan in the role of Regan. She acted script in hand bravely keeping her cool among the other actors. She remained in that role for the entire first act. In recognition of her sterling efforts, Jonathan Pryce brought her on for her own thoroughly deserved curtain call at the end of the performance. Such was her shock that Pryce had to remind her to bow.

Prospero vs the young ones

The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8 October 2011

The ruined brick set for this production presaged industrial sparseness rather than any kind of island. Prospero’s cell was built into the stage right box and its overflowing library was warmly lit, making it look inviting in contrast to the grey bleakness of the rest of the stage. A door was set into the bare brick back wall.

Ralph Fiennes’ Prospero wandered on from stage right while the house lights were still up and the audience chattering. A hush descended and the lights eventually dimmed. His staff and book were in position downstage. He knelt to consult the book, muttering the beginnings of a spell under his breath. Picking up his staff, Prospero stood and began a series of stylised movements, gradually retreating upstage, whereupon the tempest began.

The mariners descended on ropes from the flies and a large bridge structure was flown in carrying the Shipmaster. The motion of the ship was conveyed by the crew swaying as they held on to the ropes.

Projections were used to indicate the storm and rain, turning the bland set into something more colourful. Mariners carried a mast, perhaps trying to hold onto it.

The sound of the dialogue here was quite audible and not lost under the sound effects. Ariel moved about spouting flames from his hand.

Gonzalo’s speech was picked out in spotlight as he commented on his desire to “die a dry death”. This special treatment earmarked him for our attention later on.

The drowning of the crew and sinking of the ship were indicated by the bridge rising up out of view, while some of the mariners cascaded down ropes as if descending beneath it.

Miranda looked concerned at the plight of the ship she had seen (1.2). Prospero was frustrated at this concern. Fiennes’ Prospero was a cynical middle-aged man constantly assailed by impetuous youth. His personal mission was to tame this wild youthful enthusiasm. The dynamic of the production was idealism versus cynicism/realism.

He sat down on the ground with Miranda to explain how they had come to be on the island. But when he got onto the subject of his brother’s perfidy, he shot to his feet and told the story animatedly. The emotions aroused in him would not let him rest calmly on the ground. This indicated his continued inner torment at the injustice he had suffered.

The audience tittered at Prospero’s remark about Miranda’s mother assuring him of his paternity. For some reason they also laughed at the mention of rats leaving the boat, which was odd.

Ivy

Prospero acted out the way his brother clung to him like ivy, and also mimed the screen that had stood between his brother and the dukedom. In general, this speech was spoken with such skill and mastery of the language that it was almost worth the ticket price in itself.

He put Miranda to sleep and covered her with his cloak. He stood in the middle of the stage and dramatically summoned Ariel (pronounced: air-re-al) who floated across the stage on a highly visible harness. Ariel’s reference to flying was said while flying. This and other flying effects were deliberately primitive, perhaps to suggest original practice. There was a hint that this was meant to resemble a Blackfriars production.

Prospero set up an hourglass downstage when referencing the time, and the glass remained in position until the beginning of second half.

Ariel’s general demeanour was that of a young boy. His petulance at not being released immediately provoked more ire from Prospero in another example of his containment and direction of youthful energy. Ariel appeared in a grey wrap with rudimentary wings on his shoulders. His face was blue with a darker blue streak at top.

When at work for his master, Ariel was often portrayed by three actors, reflecting his own description of himself in 1.2: “Sometime I’d divide and burn in many places”.

Prospero reminded Ariel about his past. The recollection prompted the spirit to act out his former imprisonment shut inside the pine tree. Ariel then flitted off using the balletic movements that characterised his motion.

After waking Miranda and a brief conversation with Ariel, Prospero took his daughter to encounter Caliban, who rose out of the trap. This Caliban, played by Giles Terera, was sharp, precise, angry, but not primitive.

Caliban has some of the best lines in the play, which hints that he has a certain nobility of thought. Here it was made explicit that his mind was commensurately keen. He spoke with a slight stutter and hesitance, which looked like learnt behaviour masking his true potential. This made Caliban part of the axis of youth against which Prospero was engaged.

When the monster said that the island was his by Sycorax his mother, you almost expected him to produce a deed of title in evidence.

Prospero frequently fingered an ornament associated with Caliban, whose significance was not revealed until the end.

Miranda showed Caliban the book that she had used to teach him language, which he summarily ripped up.

Enchantment

A tearful Ferdinand was escorted onstage by a group of islanders who were dressed in primitive costumes consisting of yellowish body wraps and yellow manes of hair. This was accompanied by singing and dancing. They surrounded him as if representing the enchantment to which he was subject.

Prospero brought in Miranda from upstage left to see the young man. She exuded a flush of inexperienced enthusiasm. After Prospero challenged Ferdinand, Miranda’s aside about her father’s ungentleness was directed at the audience. There was a flicker of comedy in Prospero’s repeated attempts to catch Ferdinand’s attention by asking him for “one word”, highlighting how distracted the prince was by Miranda’s charms.

Ferdinand drew his sword but he could not move it. Prospero hit the sword with a small stick found on the ground, causing the sword to drop. Ferdinand became yet another source of youthful exuberance and energy to be contained.

The nobles were dressed in Jacobean costume, which tied in with the period flying effects (2.1). Sebastian and Antonio sat themselves stage right to bicker about Gonzalo, who stood some distance from them. The timing of Sebastian’s camp interventions was excellent. Alonso crouched disconsolately stage left.

Antonio and Sebastian’s bet on who would speak next, saw Gonzalo almost begin to speak, but in the end the first words came from Adrian. Alonso finally snapped at all the yapping. Sebastian rubbed the sore by reminding Alonso that this was all his fault.

Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was held over from this scene until the nobles were next together. This speeded up the scene so that Ariel’s enchantment of the nobles came next.

He walked invisible among them and charmed them to sleep. Alonso noticed the others falling asleep in a pile stage right and wished his eyes would close in the same way. Ariel then charmed Alonso, provoking his remark: “I find they are inclined to do so.”

Antonio set about persuading Sebastian to consent to the murder of his own brother. When Sebastian asked him about his conscience, there was a long pause before Antonio replied “Ay, sir, where lies that?”

Prospero had appeared briefly at the back of the stage during this time, providing an explanation for Ariel’s subsequent comment that his master had foreseen this plot. Ariel charmed the nobles awake so that they saw Antonio and Sebastian with their swords drawn against them. Sebastian managed to bluster his way out of the situation and his deceitful account of his actions was believed.

Storm

Caliban dumped his heavy load of wood, and hid under his coat as he heard a storm approaching (2.2).

Trinculo was performed by Nicholas Lyndhurst, the production’s resident prole-bait, who spoke throughout in a stupid high-pitched rustic voice. He knelt on all fours under the coat facing in the opposite direction so that the coat jutted up like a rock. Stephano, Clive Wood, entered roaring drunk, singing and dancing. He sat on the rock, but soon spat out drink when the ‘rock’ moved as Caliban spoke.

The four-legged monster shuffled around on its knees and ended up facing lengthways downstage as Stephano gave it wine. Trinculo’s head appeared facing the stage to say that he recognised Stephano’s voice. Stephano went to leave, but Trinculo called him back. Stephano pulled on Trinculo’s legs and retrieved him from under the coat.

Clive Wood was superb at acting drunk and not tolerating sudden movement. Caliban became infatuated with the source of the liquor, which allowed Stephano to make fun of him. Stephano touched the side of his nose to signal his mischievousness. Caliban enthusiastically kissed Stephano’s feet.

Caliban danced in celebration of his new-found freedom while Stephano and Trinculo joined in a kind of chorus. But they also made bunny ear gestures behind Caliban’s head to mock him.

Ferdinand carried logs, with his feet bound loosely with rope (3.1). Miranda tried to help and Prospero watched them at a distance hiding by the left side of the stage.

When Miranda told Ferdinand her name, he slowly spelled out the syllables to arrive at the connection with the word ‘admired’. Prospero commented in aside, and although his words were positive, he seemed distressed. He intended to marry off his daughter, but at the same time his cynicism had infected his view of all humanity to the extent that he could only see obstacles and setbacks. His phrase “So glad of this as they I cannot be…” was keenly accentuated. The interval came here after what seemed like a long 90 minutes.

Interval

At the start of the second half (3.2), Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo were very drunk indeed. Caliban carried in a butt of wine. The audience laughed at Trinculo’s joke about the state tottering. Stephano got his words mixed up so that he said “songue in tack” instead of “tongue in sack”. He also tried to speak to Trinculo but looked in the wrong place and had to be directed back, presumably due to drink-induced blurred vision.

Ariel threw his voice to create the impression that Trinculo was insulting Stephano. After each “thou liest” Trinculo looked around to see where the voice was coming from. Stephano eventually punched and head-butted Trinculo.

Caliban tried to convince Stephano to kill and supplant Prospero. The turning point came when he mentioned Miranda. As he asked “Is it so brave a lass?”, Stephano traced an hourglass figure with his hands. Caliban corrected him with a gesture of his own, making Miranda’s hips seem wider.

They sang their song but failed to get the tune correct. Ariel played the right tune offstage, leading Caliban into his famous speech about the isle being full of noises.

When we next saw them, the nobles were tired and Antonio and Sebastian were still trying to execute their murderous plot (3.3). Gonzalo’s speech about his ideal commonwealth was transferred here to give more of an introduction to the banquet sequence.

The bridge descended again with Prospero lying on its floor looking down at the nobles below, as indicated in the stage directions which have him “on the top”. He moved his hands as if casting a spell to usher in the banquet.

The dancing villagers brought in a banquet table with food as music played. The nobles gather round and Alonso tasted some to make sure it is real, saying “I will stand to and feed”.

Ariel’s harpy descended from above. Surprisingly for a production laden with convincing effects, the harpy was not really menacing and its plain white wings made it look like a giant seagull. Ariel was still substantially a sprite and looked more like a birdman than a harbinger of doom.

The food instantly disappeared from the table and later the villagers pulled away the table cloth to reveal that the table has vanished from beneath.

The three men of sin stood transfixed for a while, separate from the others, after the harpy vision had disappeared. They exited in confusion.

Handfasting

Prospero performed a handfasting ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand (4.1). His stern warning to the young man about breaking Miranda’s virgin-knot goaded Ferdinand into an obviously insincere suitor’s speech about his honourable intentions. Prospero did not look impressed. He nodded cynically, saying “Fairly spoke”.

Although comical, the serious point underlying this was Prospero’s disenchantment with youth, and Ferdinand in particular. Despite effectively hand-picking Ferdinand for Miranda’s attentions, Prospero could not disguise his lack of respect. Marrying the couple almost seemed like a tedious job of work rather than a labour of love by a devoted father.

Prospero sent the couple to sit upstage and summoned Ariel. He turned the hourglass over to start it again. He had to return upstage and pull Ferdinand off Miranda when he noticed them canoodling. His words “Look thou be true. Do not give dalliance too much the rein” fitted nicely with their sudden enthusiasm for each other. Ferdinand responded to this with yet more vows of chastity, which caused Prospero to roll his eyes. This was very funny to watch.

He sat the couple on the ground downstage and produced the pageant. A long strip of sheet unfurled from the flies like a walkway and Iris hovered in the air stage right, appearing to walk down it. She announced the entry of Ceres who flew in stage left suspended in a loop of cloth. Juno descended on the bridge only when mentioned. Her hair and face were gold, in a style rather reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth, and the bridge was decorated with large golden fans. The islanders below presented the dance of the reapers. This was a very stunning and effective staging that seemed like a recreation of a Jacobean court masque.

Remembering Caliban’s plot, Prospero called a halt to proceedings. The lighting changed abruptly to illuminate the ground and put the masque into darkness. The extensive and visually stunning revels really were now ended.

Unfortunately, when Ralph Fiennes said “I will plague them all, even to roaring” I got a flashback of Helen Mirren saying the same line in the Julie Taymor film version.

Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo approached Prospero’s cell. Caliban led the way and appeared to be taking the mission very seriously. He was therefore very annoyed when a clothes line suddenly shot across the stage, causing the others to turn back and put on the clothes.

Prospero, Ariel and the other spirits appeared and barked at the conspirators like dogs, chasing them away. Prospero’s concluding triumph about his enemies lying at his mercy was quite scary.

Compassion

At the beginning of act five, Prospero entered just as he had done at the start of the play in his magic robes, carrying his staff and book. Ariel urged compassion, and Prospero appeared to be affected by this advice. He would practice virtue rather than vengeance.

Prospero used his staff to cast a spell creating a dimly lit circle around him. His speech about abjuring his rough magic was excellently spoken and unleashed the power of the verse. When Ralph Fiennes said that he had made promontories shake, you were inclined to believe him.

Still under Prospero’s enchantment, the nobles slowly made way onstage. Their arms were outstretched and the men tentatively groped the air as if unable to see. This looked a little forced. Prospero made them circle round and talked about them in turn.

His anger at Antonio caused him to make striking motions towards his brother with his staff, a first indication that his vow of clemency was proving difficult for him to keep. He had accepted at an intellectual level that mercy was the best course, but his residual anger towards Antonio still rebelled against it.

He asked Ariel to fetch his formal ducal uniform and he changed into it onstage with Ariel providing cover. As he put on the sword of office he looked at Antonio and partly drew it from its scabbard. This was another indication of the resentment he still felt towards his brother.

When the nobles had emerged from their trance, Prospero touched Alonso to assure him that he was real. Alonso remained doubtful until he felt Prospero’s pulse. He bowed to Prospero as he resigned his dukedom. When Prospero spoke to Antonio he paused slightly before pronouncing his pardon, but it seemed that the struggle to forgive had finally been won.

Ferdinand and Miranda appeared lit behind a black sheet playing on a white chessboard. Prospero’s reaction to Miranda’s brave new world speech was yet another indication of his weary cynicism in the face of youthful idealism and enthusiasm, a theme running through Fiennes’ performance. This characterisation raised the question of whether this Prospero had any real hopes for the future happiness of the couple.

Gonzalo’s summing up was quite touching. He smoothed over the discord by attributing the events to behaviour enacted “when no man was his own”.

With the plotters also fetched in, Prospero stood over Caliban to acknowledge him his. Interestingly, Prospero pardoned Caliban and then took from Miranda the ornament that he had held nervously in his hand earlier in the play, and put it around Caliban’s neck. This ritual seemed to reinstate Caliban as ruler of the island. The pardoned plotters went into Prospero’s cell to trim it handsomely. Prospero liberated Ariel, who flew off after touching Prospero’s hand with a mixture of gratitude and affection.

Prospero opened up a trap door and knelt by it with his staff and book. He broke the staff behind his neck and cast it and the book into the hatch. A sound effect indicated the long drop as the instruments of his power plummeted into the depths of the earth.

This gave extra resonance to his concluding speech about his powers being overthrown. Fiennes requested that the audience set him free and I was among the first to clap at the end.

Conclusions

This production was dominated and defined by Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Prospero. I had baulked at the £93 price of the premium seats, settling instead for the standard £63 stalls. But after seeing the production I had to concede that the higher price could almost be justified by the overall quality of the work.

Prospero’s disdainful cynicism, particularly of youth, added an extra dimension to the standard story of revenge and forgiveness. Looked at from this perspective, it is interesting to note how the play’s one truly aged character, Gonzalo, is portrayed in a uniformly positive light as if to underline the old-is-better dynamic.