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Antony and Cleopatra

Stratford Reviews

Clive Barnes
Senior Drama Critic, the New York Post (excerpt from "Great Shakes and Small")
Sunday Theater View, 19 September 1999

"...The RSC itself is only a 2-1/2-hour rail journey away from London in its other -- and original -- home in Stratford-on-Avon [sic], where Shakespeare remains the major cottage industry. During a recent visit, I caught back-to-back performances of "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Othello" without even staying overnight.
With these, plus another, very differently styled performance of "Antony" at the Globe and a remarkable chamber production of "The Merchant of Venice" at the National Theatre, I felt I had had a representative taste of British Shakespeare on the cusp of the century.
"Antony and Cleopatra" is an extraordinarily difficult play to stage convincingly. It is almost casually constructed -- the two main characters are bereft of soliloquies, so although we see them in action, we have to guess their inner thoughts and motives. And though there are plumply rewarding roles for Enobarbus and Octavius Caesar, the rest of the crew, Roman and Egyptian alike, is given short shrift.
At 65, Alan Bates became the oldest Antony in my experience. (Godfrey Tearle -- my first and, in many respects, my best Antony -- was a mere 62 when he played opposite Edith Evans' equally mature Cleopatra in 1946.) But Shakespeare does describe Antony as "grizzl'd" and later as "that old ruffian," and the chance to see this extraordinary actor in an unhappily rare excursion into Shakespeare was irresistable.
His Antony had a fine and antic madness -- a go-for-broke desperation coupled with a crumpled heroism. Bates also showed a thoughtfulness for the poetry that recalled Michael Redgrave's memorable Antony, and he found a perfect match in the ambiguous, sensual and uncommonly alluring Cleopatra of Frances de la Tour -- also not in her first youth.
The other "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Globe should have been renamed "Cleopatra and Cleopatra." This season, the Globe company is experimenting with staging Shakespeare with an all-male cast dressed in handsome Elizabethan costumes, as was done in Shakespeare's time. Back then, however, the "women" were played by pre-adolescent boys; here, they are fully grown men, which creates a sense of drag rather than convention.
Rylance, the company manager and a splendid actor, has surrounded himself with mediocre players. Rylance plays Cleopatra -- and he is terrific.
Actually, he always is. His line readings are sometimes bizarre but singularly provocative, while his feel for the poetry and his innate sense of character make him one of Britain's finest Shakespeareans.
But it would be more interesting if he played with actors of his own bright mettle. Say he had settled for Antony -- it's not a bad part -- and lured Sam Wanamaker's daughter Zoe to play Cleopatra. That would have been even more fun!" ...

Benedict Nightingale
The New York Times (excerpt from "A London Season as Unsettling as the Weather")
Sunday, 29 August 1999

"... there is much to be said for Mark Rylance's disconcertingly girlish yet often forceful Queen of the Nile at Shakespeare's Globe, and for Frances de la Tour's caustic performance of the same role in Stratford. When the second of these Cleopatras is mourning the death of Alan Bates' Antony, one might even talk of a de la Tour de force.

"...Giles Block's all-male production [at the Globe] doesn't altogether help here, for the lifting of the dying hero up to Cleopatra's monument is inadvertently hilarious, with the captured queen of the Nile and a big, beefy Charmian hauling at the rope as if they were energetically raising the mainsail on some unwieldy galleon.
After that, the opening-night audience clearly found it tough to continue suspending its disbelief in a male heroine, for, fairly or unfairly, there was still the odd giggle when Rylance removed his wig -- to reveal a bald, scrofulous scalp beneath -- replaced it with a pharaoh's shimmering band and made an honorable stab at a regal death.
There were, however, no sniggers when Frances de la Tour did much the same for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Indeed, her whole performance had been moving toward the moment when, stricken by Antony's death and her own capture, she sat in a skullcap before a mirror, making up a face that suddenly looked blanched, ravaged and old. At that moment her Cleopatra was revealed as a woman for whom looks, life, even love have largely been a piece of brilliant play-acting. Hers is a wry, wary queen, always more in control of her emotions than she likes to pretend, and more impressively partnered than Mark Rylance is by Shelley's overgenial Antony.
Right from this production's mildly shocking opening, when he lifts a bleary face from between Ms. de la Tour's knees, Alan Bates makes it clear that Antony is no longer the power that he was and, what is more, that he knows and feels it. Again and again, under Steven Pimlott's direction, he tries to recover himself, and again and again a combination of age and sottishness pre-empts him. Partly as a result, some of the comedy is missing, but the pathos and even some of the tragedy are there.
After all, what is sadder than the fading bravado of a once-charismatic roue? Or than the attempts of an exhausted woman to sustain her mystique? At Stratford that is a lot clearer than at the Globe."

Michael Coveney
The Daily Mail (full review)
Thursday, 24 June 1999

SHAKESPEARE'S in luck. Both of our major companies have wonderful new productions on the boil in a momentous week for the bard of Avon.
Alan Bates, as Antony, has kept a date with destiny as the greatest warrior poet of them all. Speculation was rife as to exactly how chemical would be his relationship with the Cleopatra of Frances de la Tour.
But Bates is gloriously reinstated as a major classical actor. And Miss de la Tour is on blistering form.
Angular, funny, queenly of voice and gesture, she summons those immortal longings like a Buddhist hermit, stripped to her hair-net and brown cloak before assuming the golden garb of greatness.
Rather like Dame Judi Dench in "Amy's View," she shows us the preparation for the role, applying the make-up as she envisages some ghastly showbiz humiliation in Pompey's march through Syria.
This is the most riveting last hour of farewell and lamentation I have experienced at this play.
Steven Pimlott's production is full of interesting ideas and stark staging, with excellent brassy music by Jason Carr and some lovely silken costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend. The luxuriance of Alexandria is well contrasted with the black leather brutality of Rome, personified in the speechifying prig of Guy Henry's sinister Octavius Caesar.
This magnificent epic poem is often hindered in the staging. But a fluid design of three tilted mirrors and geometric patterns beyond lends cinematic speed to this always difficult but magnificent epic tragecy.
There is a wonderful Enobarbus from Malcolm Storry, describing over the dinner table the barge she sat in and beating his chest in remorse after switching loyalties.
Mr Bates's quicksilver speech and darting thought sets the tempo. He starts with his head in Cleopatra's lap and ends lost in her arms. He has kissed away kingdoms and provinces -- and triumphed all the same.

Charles Spencer
The Daily Telegraph (excerpt)
Friday, 25 June 1999

BATES is on splendid form... I can't remember such a blearily boozy Antony, and Bates poignantly captures the physical frailty of a lifelong hell-raiser who is feeling his age. There is a real sense of a man who knows that this is his last chance of love, and Bates reaches to the poetic heart of the great scene in which this weary warrior finally admits that the long day's work is done.
De La Tour might seem improbably cast as Cleopatra yet she is an actress capable of glowing allure, which she uses to fine effect here. Wrapped in little more than a sheet, she's a sexy, throaty Cleopatra ... funny, perverse and blessed with a lovely sense of irony. ...Among the supporting performers, Malcolm Storry's harrowingly anguished Enobarbus and Guy Henry's lugubrious, touching Octavius are first-rate. |||

The price isn't right

John Peter
The Sunday Times (full review)
Sunday, 27 June 1999

[The first half of Peter's review dealt with Trevor Nunn's current production of "The Merchant of Venice" at the National Theatre. "Both the National and the RSC are tackling difficult Shakespeares, with revealing results."]

SEEING "Antony and Cleopatra" (RST, Stratford) just a few days later, you'll realise that this, too, is a tragedy of values: those of power and love. Antony and Cleopatra attempt to hold both and it destroys them. Enobarbus dies because choosing one over the other is more than he can bear. Octavius survives because his soul has enough steel in it to choose power over affection.
He gets the most original performance in Steven Pimlott's production. Guy Henry plays him as a cautious, fastidious, inward-looking young man who loves the older, more glamorous Antony: you sense that Antony could be a father figure for him, perhaps to replace his dead mentor, Julius Caesar. Instead of the cold political operator, Henry plays a man of strong but controlled feelings: his victory gives him private grief and he almost regrets that finally he proves to be the stronger.


Pimlott's production opens unpromisingly. "Look where they come," says a soldier, and so they do: the stage crowd parts to reveal Alan Bates's Antony vigorously performing cunnilingus on Frances de la Tour's semi-recumbent Cleopatra. This infantile director's gesture is like a pretentious designer label, shouting: Look what I can do! This is adult sex! It was me who thought of this!
It takes huge authority for actors to recover from such a scene. Bates is an ageing war god. His Antony is "an emperor and a Jove," but also Octavius's "old ruffian": a fighter whose mercurial temperament and vulnerability make him both Cleopatra's king and her slave. The vast, curled head is proud but boyish, and you can see how he struggles with the passion that he half knows will destroy him.


There is something thrilling but sad about this couple. In everything they say and do together there is a profound sensual and emotional excitement: a sense of need but also a sense of desperation as if the years were fast running out. De la Tour is commanding and tempestuous, but neither quite the empress nor quite the fishwife: almost a middle-class Cleopatra, with an eye for decorum. Her voice has passion and feeling, but little variety of colour: it does not make dramatic music.
Malcolm Storry plays a huge, soldierly Enobarbus, gravely and broodingly spoken; but his death scene is fudged because he simply gets up and walks off. So does everybody who dies: Agrippa, Iras, Charmian, Antony and Cleopatra. This is a dull, modernist device, and it makes it look as if Pimlott were afraid of emotion, or worse, despised it (they are often the same thing).
In her final scene, Cleopatra is like a tired actress in her dressing room. Time, love and defeat have ravaged her face, and she knows that she is both paying for her life and fulfilling her fate. This is what makes the play a tragedy and gives de la Tour's performance a touch of greatness. |||

© 1999 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Throwing glory to the winds

Alastair Macaulay
The Financial Times (full review)
Friday, 25 June 1999

WHAT is death but a final exit? And what is this life but an ante-room - indeed, a dressing room, with all the men and women merely players?
In the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Antony and Cleopatra, designed with grand simplicity by Yolanda Sonnabend and directed by Steven Pimlott, we are at first aware of several different layers of existence. The main action occurs in the central polygonal stage area, with three tall walls - half windows, half mirrors - showing us reflections but also the larger realms behind: a pyramid, with the wide circles of the world and sunlit sky beyond.
But then central and peripheral characters - Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Iras, Cleopatra, Charmian - begin to make choices between the light of this world and the dark of the next, and each one of them chooses darkness, death, suicide. Now we notice that all the scenery behind has vanished; that behind this hollow octagon there is nothing but the blank brick back wall of the theatre. This world was just the theatre; and, in the moment of death, the actors depart into the darkness of the wings.
Cleopatra, whose preparation for death is the most prolonged, first strips away her make-up, like an actor preparing, and then applies a new Egyptian mummy mask as she readies herself to meet, in this world, history, and, in the next world, Antony.
What all this serves to reveal is that Shakespeare addresses death in this play as he does nowhere else. But the one abiding value is love, Romantic love in its full adulterous force, the value that changes all others. And, with hindsight, we feel how we have been prepared for this love-made change in the values of Antony and Cleopatra from the opening speech of the play on. Philo speaks of "this dotage of our general" and then says "You shall see in him/ The triple pillar of the world transform'd/ Into a strumpet's fool." In this production, Philo speaks these lines to us, the audience; what we then see is Antony with his head buried deep between Cleopatra's legs.
But is she a strumpet? And is he a fool? Shakespeare makes Cleopatra and Antony radically real, showing them to us from one angle after another: shows them weak and changeable and hypocritical as well as grand and witty and visionary.
If you feel Cleopatra must be an icon of perfect beauty and glamour, then Frances de la Tour is not for you. In truth, de la Tour's sad belle laide bloodhound face sometimes does look wrong -- but in her expansive body-language, her wordly-wise voice, and, above all, in her assured way with the lines, she takes to Cleopatra as to her native element. She has the caustic humour and the grand manner, the sluttish ways and the vaulting intelligence. Right up to the last, we are enthralled by the shifting temper of her mind.
Alan Bates, playing Antony, is at present a little too restless, and his consonants are among the muzziest in the cast. And yet how utterly right he is for the role. Because he has been a star for decades, we feel we know him, just as we know Antony as a world hero at the start of the play. Effortlessly he catches Antony the happy, powerful voluptuary, the general undone by love -- and also the unhappy vein in Antony of self-criticism, that turns in due course to a vein of self-loathing.
All these elements co-exist in him, along with a wholly disarming capacity for passionate tenderness. How softly, how beautifully he suddenly returns us to the play's central dilemma - worldly glory or love? -- as he says "Fall not a tear, I say, one of them rates/ All that is won and lost." And then he brings us the buried rhyme in "Give me a kiss,/ Even this" - and now his voice changes - "repays me." I had not anticipated that Pimlott or de la Tour or Bates would be right for this play; and it is a pleasure to be found wrong. |||

Jeremy Kingston
The Times (excerpt)
Friday, 25 June 1999

DE la Tour is not a classic beauty but in her kingfisher blue robes she becomes regal, exotic and, like all the best exotic queens, unpredictable. Scholars of the text will know what Cleopatra is going to say next but not how de la Tour will say it... Bates's Antony, almost always untidily dressed, and either holding a cup of wine or calling out for one, is grandly grizzled ...this production finds its way to many of the play's complicated truths. |||

Susannah Clapp
The Observer (excerpt)
Sunday, 27 June 1999

...AS Enobarbus, Malcolm Storey magnificently suggests what the couple have thrown away. He begins as a powerful, clear-sighted lieutenant and ends as a self-lacerating defector. When he talks of Antony, 'thou mine of bounty', he stresses 'mine' so that the word reverberates both with intimacy and depth, as if to say that Antony and his riches belong to Enobarbus. |||


Nicholas de Jongh
The Evening Standard (excerpt)
Thursday, 24 June 1999

PIMLOTT'S idea is to show how often Antony and Cleopatra behave like narcissistic actors, who relish watching themselves perform as lovers and victims of desire and fate. Yolanda Sonnabend's set, with costumes running from ancient to modern, faithfully reflects the director's conception... The bareish stage, with a 10-strong band of musicians often in evidence, is significantly dominated by a trio of mirrors, which keep reminding us how self-absorbed and self-regarding these mature lovers are...|||

Michael Billington
The Guardian (excerpt)
Friday, 25 June 1999

THIS Antony and Cleopatra is certainly better than the National's recent effort, which barged down the Nile and sank. Pimlott's production has a lot going for it. For a start, Yolanda Sonnabend has designed a beguiling space that effortlessly contains both Rome and Alexandria: three tilted mirrors in the foreground, an elliptical astrolabe in the background. It both implies the characters' narcissism and Shakespeare's cosmic range and allows the action to move fluently. Even the leather bikers' kit for the Romans and fluid silks for the Egyptians, possess a timeless charm.... Bates plays Antony as a grizzled ruffian with a big heart. He even shows compassion to the discarded Octavia. But he tends to play the emotion behind the words rather than the words themselves. ...a production that moves fast, looks good and seeks to offer, in the words of Janet Adelman, "a tragic experience embedded in a comic structure".|||