Sex in the City: Antony and Cleopatra in Liverpool

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Janet Suzman’s production at the Liverpool Playhouse has restored Antony and Cleopatra for me after its recently lost fortunes. Every so often a production comes round that while you are watching it you know is going to burn bright in the mind’s eye for years to come.

The story-telling and political stakes (never easy with this play) are totally clear and aided by some judicious cutting. Peter McKintosh’s stylish and economic design – shiny brass lamps and sudden drapes for Alexandria flown up to reveal a stark iron walkway and brick wall for Rome – is unobtrusive and encourages a suppleness of movement and stage picture. The flowing Egyptian costumes swish in stark contrast to the sharp Roman suits, but both have modern touches: machine guns are carried (though only swords and daggers are ever used), the modern beer bottles and cans on Pompey’s barge, and Cleopatra’s chic-Nile-geek spectacles for signing papers as the business-like administrating Queen (act 2, scene 5).

The political and sexual power struggle between the middle-aged lovers is clearly and passionately dilineated. Our first impressions are of a goddess-like Cleopatra standing, raised, centre stage with her back to us; Antony snoozes at her feet, facing the audience. She begins to entice and flirt; he just wants to sleep. Comparisons with Botticelli’s famously sexy Venus and Mars spring to mind, whose ‘fierce affections’ the eunuch Mardian imagines later (1. 5). It’s lovely to see actors in a proscenium arch space speaking out directly to the audience in moments of powerful focus, which are impossible in thrust auditoria.

Kim Cattrall’s brooding and effortlessly elegant Cleopatra is used to having her own way, snapping her fingers to command troops and, one supposes, determine the fate of thousands. ‘O my oblivion is a very Antony, / And I am all forgotten’ (1. 3. 90-1) is delivered like a child retreating suddenly into crossness after having played her strong cards too earnestly. She is easily magisterial; only Aicha Kossoko’s vivacious and confidential Charmian, and Antony, are allowed to touch her. She pauses to glance around and make her people bow in turn when she threatens to ‘unpeople Egypt’ (1. 5. 77), totally believable yet mischievously flirtatious. It’s hard to believe that this is Cattrall’s first major Shakespearian role. There is a measured pace and wonderful self-assurance in her acting which is poised on the brink of humour either through verbal dexterity or sudden changes of mood: ‘Though I am mad I will not bite him’ (2. 5. 80) was spoken with such relish and ferocity on ‘bite’.

Jeffrey Kissoon is an Antony experienced in forgiveness. He is suddenly still and absorbs Cleopatra’s petulance: ‘Let us go. / Come.’ (1. 3. 101-2) is spoken with humility and a palpable ground-bass of loving and longing on his part. He adores her (oh, how he adores her!) and carries something of Egypt back to Rome in the red scarves he and Enobarbus wear, and in the powerfully relaxed way he sits astride his chair in front of Martin Hutson’s officious and stoney-hearted Caesar (2. 2.). Kissoon shows us Antony totally broken after the ill-fated Battle of Actium: ‘Hark, the land bids me tread no more upon’t’ (3. 11. 1) is almost whispered. The world has suddenly changed and he is feeling lost forever in it. He can only hark back to what he has been. Later he enters, Othello-like, to seize political control from Cleopatra and bid Thidias be whipped. Kissoon is not afraid to allow Shakespeare’s language to sing and resonate through him: ‘Come, / Let’s have one other gauuuuudy night’ (4. 1. 184-5) in a performance which constitutes some of the most genuinely heroic acting I have seen since in ages.

Martin Hutson makes complete sense of Caesar: fastidious, afraid, insecure, snobbish, over-demonstrative, and wolfishly ravenous for power. There is a lovely clash of cultural values portrayed in the short scene (3. 12) between Caesar and an Egyptian Ambassador (played by the Soothsayer in this production). Egypt is a commodity like any other; Caesar will simply absorb it, and has no time for its customs or beauty. When his soldiers enter the monument after Proculeius we see Mardian murdered and dragged off; a few lines later the absurdity of the scene – three women prostrate before the conquering Caesar – generates laughter on his line ‘Which is the Queen of Egypt?’ (5. 2. 108). Hutson’s Caesar ends the play brilliantly in a business-like, almost incidental way, as though he is about to say something else, and breaks off.

Ian Hogg’s Enobarbus is an imploring and desperate voice crying in the luxury of it all, a product of the decadence around him, yet one who can see a better world always just beyond his reach.

And the play’s extraordinary poetry – every word of which could be heard – seemed rich and life-giving.

Bravo!

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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