Review: Love and duty battle it out in Shakespeare's tale of hisatory's greatest power couple

Josette Simon as Cleopatra and Antony Byrne as Mark Antony
Josette Simon as Cleopatra and Antony Byrne as Mark Antony
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Peter Ormerod reviews the RSC's Antony & Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

This is a sturdy and handsome production of a play that never seems entirely sure of what it is.

Everything is in place in Iqbal Khan’s production. We have Josette Simon as Cleopatra, demonstrating a peerless blend of grace and power; we have Antony Byrne as a stocky, hirsute, strong Mark Antony. We have confident, bold staging and fine classical costume. The story of history’s greatest power couple, full of passion and politics, could not be set on firmer ground. And yet it’s surprisingly hard to care about it.

Mark Antony is a man torn between love and duty. As one of the rulers of the Roman empire, he’s posted over to Egypt. But Cleopatra’s charms prove irresistible, and it is with dismay all round that Antony is called back to Rome. There follows a back-and-forth between a strait-laced Rome and a more sensual Egypt, which ensures variety over the play’s three hours.

But if it’s hard to believe in the central relationship, the rest of the action loses a fair degree of interest. There seems little about Antony to justify Cleopatra’s gushing (“The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm and burgonet of men” is among her more modest appraisals), which raises questions about how genuine their love really is; indeed, about whether it’s all rather self-glorifying. The effect is emotionally disengaging almost to the point of alienation.

There’s the occasional obvious misstep, and times when clarity is sacrificed in the service of energy and pace. The result is a strange diminishing of drama and excitement as the play proceeds. This is compounded by the baffling underuse of Laura Mvula’s wondrous music, which brings so much colour and intrigue in the first half, only to disappear almost completely in the second.

You end up rather hoping that the asp will just hurry along and do its thing. It’s a pity: there is undoubted talent on display, but sadly not quite enough chemistry.