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Shakespeare's famous tragedy reimagined
Catherine McClements as Cleopatra and Johnny Carr as Antony. Image credit: Heidrun Lohr
With their stylised suits and tousled hair, Antony and Cleopatra, as directed by Peter Evans for Bell Shakespeare, are transported from the Roman Empire into the 21st century. The two – and most of the rest of the cast – spend much of the play chatting, arguing and lounging about in designer armchairs, punctuated by the occasional strobe-lit, techno-fuelled party.
Image credit: Heidrun Lohr
This globally recognisable setting not only modernises the show, it also emphasises the protagonists' hedonism and irresponsibility. Antony (Johnny Carr) wanders about the stage, bearded and barefooted, giving the impression he's just woken up – or maybe stumbled in from a small bar in Redfern. He might be one of the Roman Empire's three mighty rulers; however, when the play opens, he's been neglecting his position, instead spending a lot of time in Egypt, engaged in a passionate affair with Queen Cleopatra. She's played by charismatic Catherine McClements, who struts about in black boots and a revealing blouse, often clinging to a whiskey glass and cracking jokes.
Image credit: Heidrun Lohr
A blow strikes their fervent coupling when Antony receives news that his wife, Fulvia, has died, and Pompey (Lucy Goleby), the son of a successful general, is threatening civil war. Consequently, Antony returns to Rome, to join fellow rulers, Octavius Caesar (Gareth Reeves) and Lepidus (Jo Turner). What follows is a twisting and turning series of deals, betrayals, intrigues and duplicities: at both personal and political levels. Underpinning them all is the tension between Antony's love of Cleopatra and his worldly duties.
Evans confines the action to an elevated oval stage, veiled on-and-off by a gauze curtain. Shifts between locations are conveyed via projections stating places and dates, and bold, saturating lighting, with red representing Egypt and blue, Rome (Benjamin Cisterne). If not for these indicators, the setting could be any swanky hotel lobby, in any time and any place. The audience cannot help but be struck by the absurdity of such powerful players making decisions to lead entire nations to war in such cosy, cloistered environments – particularly when said players are rather partial to a drink.
Ray Chong Nee as Enobarbus. Image credit: Heidrun Lohr
Reeves and Goleby give commanding performances, Reeves as the eloquent, self-controlled, ambitious Octavius Caesar and Goleby, as the young, energetic, rebellious Pompey. In fact, in their shadow, Antony and Cleopatra come across as lacking in strength and authority. Perhaps Evans is challenging conventional interpretations of the play which, traditionally, uphold the couple as mighty, yet fallen. Here, the emphasis is on their self-indulgence: they come across as more concerned with quarrelling with one another than deliberating international issues.
Bell Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is a sharp, contemporary, entertaining production which leaves audiences pondering: when it comes to political personalities, how much, really, has changed, over the past 2,000 or so years?