Review / Is it a tragedy? A comedy? Or history?

Theatre / “Antony and Cleopatra”, by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Evans. Bell Shakespeare. At The Playhouse until April 21. Reviewed by JOE WOODWARD

“Antony and Cleopatra”. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

CATHERINE McClements provides a stand-out performance as Cleopatra in a very fluid production of Shakespeare’s play that seems to defy classification as tragedy, comedy or history.

Design by Anna Cordingley and direction by Peter Evans emphasised the intertwining of locations, particularly of Rome and Alexandria, and how they were conflicted in both a personal and geopolitical sense.

Cleopatra became the pivotal source of this conflict and so McClements’ performance needed to provide the charismatic reality that could legitimately ground this most complex of plays. To this end she achieved a most engaging portrayal.

The pastiche effect of having all characters on the stage at the same time without delineated locations certainly allowed for the kind of fluidity suggested in Shakespeare’s ordering of scenes; however, it also created problems of coherency. To counter this problem, the production cleverly used projections to define where and when the action was taking place. This helped, though plot points were still difficult to identify. Indeed, plot was subjugated to style!

Once the novelty of the aesthetically pleasing set wore off, the audience was left with intellectual interest devoid of much emotional power. The passionate bonds between characters were simply not believable. Perhaps this was deliberate to emphasise the political intrigues. Perhaps it was the sense of “cool” that permeates players in the aristocratic games played by powerful figures throughout all time. When characters hugged or kissed or explained betrayal, guilt or empathy, there was certainly emphasis and a degree of declamatory presentation. Yet it was anaemic.

And this is not necessarily a criticism!

Bell Shakespeare has always attempted to shape and frame Shakespeare’s texts through the lens of contemporary viewpoints and realities.

The reduction of all relationship between people to commodities where passion is one tick-box mid the wider consideration of social and political engagement may well be the central focus of so much of this play and the company’s presentations in general.

It is a company inside a matrix of partnerships making itself subject to many masters. This forces a kind of clarity in the position it takes for engaging with contemporary audiences. The same applied to Shakespeare himself!

By staging this mammoth work inside a living room that resembles the beguiling softness of a funeral home, Bell Shakespeare has possibly touched on some of the more subtle and elusive aspects of contemporary culture while challenging the audience to relook at historical works in light of today.

The production is a presentational artifice that says more about us in the now than anything that can be said about the historical figures of Antony and Cleopatra.

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