Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, RSC Swan Theatre, November 2013.
Review by Andrew Cowie.
When Charles Spencer described the RSC’s 2013 Antony and Cleopatra in The Telegraph newspaper as a ‘travesty’ and ‘a fiasco’ connoisseurs of train-wreck theatre hurried to book their tickets. All the warning signs were there; a young American director, Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose credit on the poster says ‘edited and directed’, not just directed, and the programme notes claim McCraney has ‘reimagined the play almost completely’. Man, this is going to send the Stratford audience screaming from the theatre!
But it didn’t. As Andrew Dickson said, rather sniffily, in The Guardian, this production, ‘could have appeared on almost any British stage any time in the past decade.’ Far from the high concept deconstructions we’ve seen at the RSC in recent years like Rupert Goold’s 2011 The Merchant of Venice or the RSC/Wooster Group’s 2012 co-production of Troilus and Cressida McCraney’s Antony And Cleopatra is positively Doran-esque in its simplicity and restraint, it is well staged and beautifully acted with an elegant and economical design. It didn’t even seem to be as radically cut as Maria Aberg’s 2012 King John. I felt a bit cheated actually.
McCraney relocates 1st century BC Egypt to late 18th century Haiti under French rule and casts Antony and his entourage as colonials far from home in the looser, freer Caribbean. McCraney overruled the RSC’s colour-blind casting policy and cast the show ‘colour conscious’ so the Egyptians/Haitians are played mostly by black actors and the Romans/French mostly by white ones.
The stage is tiled with sandstone flags bathed in Caribbean sunlight. Upstage there is a row of Corinthian columns and behind them is a shallow pool of water in front of a sky blue cyclorama. I counted only three pieces of furniture in the production, three wooden stools; apart from that the whole show is played by a small cast of ten actors, five British, five American, using a few hand props and accompanied by some imaginative and atmospheric music. All but four of the cast double or treble their roles but the narrative never felt muddled, which is a credit to McCraney’s editing and direction.
The focus is on the story-telling with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Enobarbus as an Everyman narrator. He introduces the play with part of his Act 2, scene 2, ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne’ description of Cleopatra and he provides spoken stage directions throughout, such as, ‘A messenger enters’ and ‘An interlude: Caesar’s triumph’. He then returns as a voodoo spirit after his death to finish the story.
Jonathan Cake plays a middle-aged but still impressively muscly Antony while Joaquina Kalukango’s Cleopatra is young and tiny. Her height makes sense of Cleopatra’s line ‘I would I had your inches’ but her youth makes nonsense of the recollection of her ‘salad days’ with her former lover, Julius Caesar, so that line is cut. I find English classical actors can sometimes look stagey alongside the naturalism of the American acting tradition, and Jonathan Cake’s Antony certainly has his fruity moments, but the mixed US/UK ensemble is terrific.
I had more trouble with the Haitian setting though. The correlation between imperial Rome and colonial France suits the Roman characters but, while Haiti was a colony, Egypt wasn’t, Cleopatra remained its absolute monarch until her death, so who is she here? In a video interview the designer, Tom Piper, explains that Cleopatra equates to the leader of the Haitian revolution, Toussaint Louverture, so at the time McCraney has set the play she is queen, albeit briefly, before Napoleon re-establishes French colonial rule. It’s hard to know how far you can go with this. One of the most interesting questions in the play is the extent to which Antony’s and Cleopatra’s relationship is a love match or political expediency; she kept the Roman army out of Egypt by sleeping with Caesar, she does it by sleeping with Antony and at one point she considers whether she’ll have to sleep with Octavius too, but none of that fits McCraney’s Haitian model so it’s all gone.
I also missed any real sense of dramatic progression. McCraney says the play is about Antony’s and Cleopatra’s ‘attempt to maintain some type of love and familial bond within this world that is splitting apart’ but if the world is splitting apart shouldn’t the second half of the play look a bit different from the first? Where’s the descent into war and the emergence of a new world order under Octavius? Where’s the fall of the triumvirate and the power shift from Antony to Octavius which triggers Enobarbus’s betrayal and, very nearly, Cleopatra’s? The references are there in the text but absent from the mise en scene and largely missing from the central performances.
So it’s not a disaster, this is a handsome and enjoyable production, but it’s based on some wobbly recontextualising which didn’t entirely work for me. Can I also put in a request for the RSC to include some of their online content in the programme? It doesn’t contain a single reference to Haiti but, at £4 a throw, when the director brings such a specific cultural and historical perspective to a production it would be nice to read about it there and not on the website.