Review: Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC

I, being but a moonish
youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing
and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow,
inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every
passion something and for no passion truly any
thing… would now like him, now loathe
him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep
for him, then spit at him  (As You Like It, III,ii)

Although the quote above is from Rosalind in As You Like It when she describes to Orlando the sort of behaviour that is capable of curing lovers out of the madness of love, such remedy does not seem to have had much of an effect on Mark Anthony.  He is a man clearly in love with Josette Simon’s Cleopatra who shows the very same disposition.

Fantastical and mesmerizing are the adjectives that first come to my mind to describe Simon’s take on the character in Iqbal Khan’s last production of Anthony and Cleopatra for the RSC. As Billington  (2017) points out, she is a ‘mercurial figure whose eroticism is expressed through a permanent restlessness’. My mental constructs of Cleopatra have been profoundly influenced by the voluptuousness and languid sensuality of Vivian Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor on the classic film adaptations and, therefore, it took me a while to absorb Simon’s sheer physicality and energetic behaviour. As the play develops and come to the tragic conclusion her Cleopatra gains in gravity and depth and the final scene is not only the crowning of a powerful woman but the culmination of a brilliant performance.

Anthony Byrne is a mature Anthony who is at his best in Rome and in the battlefield than when in the company of his lover in Egypt. He lacks the intensity of Simon but this would be hard to match indeed. Yet, I found this delivery clear and solid; a more Branagh-esque style compared to the force of nature that Cleopatra is. However, the intensity he lacks in life abounds in his truly impressive death scene. It is a pity that Davies’ s (2001) comment that ‘throughout the play history, productions in which both central performances have been equally praised have been rare’ still remains true. 

The RSC has opted for an aesthetic continuance between Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra: the set and props designed by Robert Innes Hopkins are minimalist again but there is considerable sophistication and beauty in that. The toy ships at first look a bit out of place in such an uncluttered stage but Villmore James’ choreography and Laura Mvula’s atmospheric music make it work beautifully.

All in all, both plays bear testament to an enduring fascination with the classic world that has come from the Middle Ages, profoundly shaped the Renaissance (Greenblatt, 2012), and is still with us in the 21st century.