Antony and Cleopatra, a rehearsed reading of
Dir. George Costigan
York Theatre Royal, York
22 February 2015
My relationship with Antony and Cleopatra is as unstable as its protagonists’. Seeing Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction of the Egyptian queen as a six year-old led to a juvenile obsession with bath salts in order to recreate her milky ablutions. As a teenager, I would read and re-read her death scene in my The Works Complete Works – not so much because of adolescent morbidity but because it was the only scene in the play with enough women and chutzpah for my liking. After attending the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2010 production – my first experience of the play by a professional company, described by the Independent’s critic Kate Bassett as a ‘gobsmackingly bad…[a] clueless, pig’s ear of a production’, I repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, and – stubbornly unwilling to distinguish between text and production – told my partner that I loathed the play. He was suitably and audibly surprised then to hear that I had voluntarily been to see this staged reading. Admittedly, my primary motivation was not Shakespeare, but the dual star-power draw of Niamh Cusack as Cleopatra and Paterson Joseph as Antony. Cusack’s pull represents a desire to experience live an actor I have only seen in Heartbeat, but whose ability with Shakespeare shines alluringly out of the clutch of archived reviews and grainy production stills in which I have encountered her. Regarding Paterson, I was intrigued by his commitment to playing Shakespeare in prisons and with underprivileged young people, as shown in the 2004 documentary My Shakespeare. I also had a sense of obligation: the reading was taking place as a fundraiser for York Theatre Royal’s upcoming refurbishment and, as it is my local theatre (and that of my students), I wanted to be supportive of its work and the rather cool idea of a staged reading, a kind of playing that Facebook tells me only takes place with any regularity in London and Stratford. What surprised my partner further was that I came out ravingly effusive about the reading and having re-appraised the play rather more favourably.
So, what was it about this staged reading that turned me? Rather ominously for Shakespeare, the text was heavily cut to suit the number of actors (twelve) and almost totally devoid of props and scenery. I find it hard not to warm to a two hour production (in this case excluding the interval), as I have noted in previous writing on Common Ground’s A Winter’s Tale, the Royal Shakespeare Company Young People’s Shakespeare Comedy of Errors, and several Globe to Globe festival productions (for which companies were guided, not always successfully, towards a maximum running time of two hours fifteen minutes). Perhaps with Antony and Cleopatra, frequently described as a difficult play to stage, a little judicious pruning helpfully alleviates some of the challenges.
Doubtlessly contributing to the fast pace of the reading was its minimalism. The only prop introduced onto the stage was a tarpaulin with strong ropes attached which was used to pull the wounded Antony (horizontally) across the stage into Cleopatra’s monument: swords were improvised from the actors’ rolled-up scripts or (rather more awkwardly and improbably) the ring-bound folders, and armour by fleece-lined hoodies. The cast wore what looked passably like garb they would wear in rehearsal – although, looking a little more closely, I would suggest that it had been subtly orchestrated. The men largely wore faded jeans and sweaters or Guernsey jumpers with bomber or hiking boots: gathered en masse as soldiers for certain scenes, they looked rather more like a Ramblers Association outing that had lost its way. The exception was Antony who sported a crisp, white shirt; smart, indigo denim; and shiny, black, Chelsea boots, presumably signifying his status, power and sexual allure (something Niall Costigan’s Caesar in his ramshackle, check shirt and tweedy, blazer combination deliberately lacked). Cleopatra and Iras (Sally Bretton) wore asymmetrically-cut, jersey, maxi skirts and chunky knits – Cleopatra’s layering of various red-wine shades offering the only really noticeable colour among the readers. Charmian wore black drainpipes and a biker jacket – it was admittedly distracting trying to work out whether this was intended to, in some way, for some obscure reason, differentiate her from the other women, or merely expressed the actor’s preference (Charlie Covell). This on-the-whole uncomplicated yet harmonious set-up – managing to temporarily, visually unite actors whose barnets and facial hair suggested their current involvement in a variety of Edwardian, maritime and geek-chic productions – was a welcome relief from the optical torment of Boyd’s production with grotesque blue-and-chocolate attire for Cleopatra and an unnecessary, ever-changing parade of haute couture trench coats and gowns paraded by her maids. The musical introductions which heralded some of this readings scenes were tongue-in-cheek: kicking off with James Brown’s Man’s World, they ranged from trumpet fanfares to romantic Mendelssohnian orchestrals. There were also nods to individual actors’ musical talents: Cusack, who initially trained as a classical flautist, played a few sultry snatches and Kieran Hill (Alexas) sang counter-tenor, rising to the challenge of hitting yet higher notes as Antony played the joker by squeezing his testicles.
Director George Costigan’s casting of the leads was interesting and intelligent, particularly given Paterson’s role as Brutus in the 2012 RSC Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s ‘prequel’ to this text,and Cusack’s playing a role that her sister Sinead has previously inhabited for the RSC. Though actors’ race was not foregrounded here – unlike Doran’s production of Julius Caesar, also frequently referred to as the all-African Julius Caesar – it inverted the text’s black Cleopatra (‘me, that am with Phoebus pinches black’) and white Antony. This had the effect of defamiliarising and highlighting the play’s abundant slave imagery: Cleopatra frequently repeatedly refers to those who bear her disagreeable tidings using this term, including Caesar and the messenger from Rome, while Antony variously invokes his lover queen and servant to ‘chain’ and ‘iron’ him. The casting was poles apart from Boyd’s lovers, who were heavy-handedly more visibly mature than this pair, with no ascertainable spark of attraction. Paterson and Cusack’s lovers were readily attractive to the audience and attracted to each other. They obtained the audience’s sympathy in stark contrast to the sappy, enmeshed, sibling duo presented by Costigan’s Caesar and Bretton’s Octavia. Joseph succeeded best of the cast in making the audience forget his script – wagging his finger vigorously in remonstration, snapping his fingers to emphasise orders. However, both he and Cusack used their bodies effectively at a range of levels, crouching low for affectionate moments and crumpling in defeat. Paterson also excelled at working the audience, variously appealing to us as ‘the people’ and soldiers as the scene demanded. His performance demonstrated the commanding nature of the role when things are going well for Antony, but also the actor’s unimpeachable command of his profession. Cusack’s Cleopatra was still palpably attractive in middle age but also achieved a noticeable, unforced girlishness in her face and movement, especially in moments where she was able to discard her leadership cares to fantasise about the absent Antony. Her exclamation, ‘Oh happy horse!’ seemed to come from a sexually-precocious teenager rather than a coarsening, experienced mistress. Similarly, the delicious schadenfreude that Cleopatra exhibited for her rival Octavia’s apparent shortcomings had the audience siding with her, egging her on, rather than seeming catty or petty. It contrasted well with the sadness, even desperateness, of her later request to know how Antony takes the news of her ‘suicide’ – no longer was her perverse curiosity a witty mind screw or power trip staged largely for the amusement of her court. Cusack also consummately captured the queen’s stateliness – her line ‘I have nothing of woman in me’ allowed audience members to feel its resonances with Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech and Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me here’.
That this difficult play can be brought off successfully by two excellent, well-matched leads should not, perhaps, be revelatory. For me though, these two potentates of the play and profession were nearly toppled by David Leonard’s excellent Enobarbus, who was effortlessly intense across a veritable gamut of emotions: humorous, grieving, sarcastic, marvelling, pragmatic, teasing, conflicted and ashamed. He delivered an entrancing description of Cleopatra’s barge, drawing out its almost-magical qualities with undertones of begrudging admiration and vicarious pleasure. The audience too should take a share in the credit for the success of this staged reading: there was plenty of hearty laughter in the right places – such as during the messenger’s trepid discomfort at re-entering Cleopatra’s presence after she has previously flown at and beaten him; a gripped silence in the final scenes; and a charming, willing suspension of disbelief for the fatal paper cuts and invisible asps the actors inflicted on their characters.
That the volume of some actors’ speech in the first half, to iterate cliché those who work mainly in television, was low even from my front row seat, with sound being sucked up into the space behind the towering proscenium arch, could charitably be seen as reinforcing the need for the theatre’s refurbishment to increase the flexibility of its facilities, within and beyond the main house: as did the gaffer tape on the stairs, the 1980s bathroom lino, and the threadbare-in-places front row carpet where generations of patrons have scuffed their feet. Were it in my possession, I would happily stump up the quarter of a million pounds needed to secure more Shakespeare of such calibre for this theatre, allegedly England’s oldest outside London. The evening may have raised a modest seven thousand pounds in ticket sales, not quite transforming the theatre’s fortunes, but it did transform my attitude to the play and whet my appetite for May’s York International Shakespeare Festival utilising diverse venues in the city, young and old, while the renovation is underway.