A marquee-like structure constructed out of gauzy curtains. Stark lighting, the kind that suggests mist or fog. Two figures alternate between sitting, standing and slouching – our doomed lovers for the night.
Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with Catherine McClements and Johnny Carr. Photo © Heidrun Lohr
Filmic captions, accompanied by pulsing, juddering chords by Max Lyandvert, clue the audience in to the year and setting, as well as what’s elapsed in between the scenes. These devices, along with two of the performances, are the only sources of energy that give this already static play any life.
Catherine McClements’ Cleopatra keeps this weighty barge afloat. When she walks onstage you feel immediately the kind of frisson that this play, at its best, generates through its tart, fraught exchanges. Mercurial and tough, she is cleverly costumed by Anna Cordingley: silver rings glitter on her fingers, while her flared pants and long sleeves give her a distinct rock and roll vibe. While she may lack some of the queenliness of other Cleopatras, this is of a piece with Peter Evans’ down to earth staging, where the rulers are more pencil pushing bureaucrat than mighty aristocrat.
Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with Jo Turner, Catherine McClements and Ursula Mills. Photo © Heidrun Lohr
She, like Ray Chong Nee as Enobarbus, makes the most of the text – line readings feel fresh and often surprising. Delivering the corker “make death proud to take us”, one feels both the bravado of the doomed queen and her genuine gutsiness, an impressive balancing act. The urgency with which she admits “I have immortal longings in me” snapped the play into focus in a way that Evans’ direction hadn’t achieved previously.
Chong Nee’s Enorbarbus similarly has oodles of presence, his description of Cleopatra’s burnished barge a highlight of this production. He takes his time with the text, savouring the words here, pouring them out there to great cumulative effect, possessing a precision with Shakespeare’s language that some of the cast lacked on opening night.
As in many of his productions, Peter Evans has the majority of his actors remain onstage throughout the play, with abrupt shifts in lighting (Benjamin Cisterne) and slow motion movement from his cast marking the ends and beginnings of scenes. With a number of people present at any one moment, Evans takes away from the intimacy of some of Antony and Cleopatra’s interactions. The audience are allowed only a few glimpses into their relationship, the compulsive, push and pull nature of their bond not coming across as strongly as it should.
The cast of Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Photo © Heidrun Lohr
Johnny Carr’s Antony has a ways to go yet. He emphasises too much the warrior’s erring ordinariness, the result of which makes him seem no real match for McClements’ queen. However, the little laugh that bursts from his lips when Cleopatra finds him dying is a nice touch, and he impresses in his climactic exchange with Eros, played by Ursula Mills (who also turns in a brief but effective Octavia, and Soothsayer).
Gareth Reeves’ Octavius feels hampered by this staging. Garbed in a turtleneck – here as restrictive as an 18th century cravat – his Caesar is a bit of a dry, pinched fellow, inspiring little feeling. The necessarily calculating nature of his character remains unlimned.
Sextus is here played by Lucy Goleby as the daughter rather than the son of the late Pompey, a choice that feels largely unrealised. Her ability to both broker deals and carouse with the men is presented with little comment, missing valuable opportunities to further explore the authority granted women in Shakespeare’s play. Still, Goleby gives it her best shot, doubling up as an effective Scarrus.
Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, with Zindzi Okenyo and Janine Watson. Photo © Heidrun Lohr
Elsewhere, the potency of some of the secondary characters is slightly undercut by Evans’ static staging. Despite this, Zindzi Okenyo’s Charmian is quietly effective and a good foil for McClements, as is Janine Watson’s Alexas. Both do comedy well, but I longed for more insight into their relationship with Cleopatra.
Jo Turner’s Lepidus is a sight in Willy Wonka purple, his nuanced performance gesturing effectively to the overcompensating manner of this weak triumvir. His Clown is a tad overplayed, but the energy welcome. Steve Rodgers as Agrippa and Demetrius, and Joseph Del Re as Menas and Philo provide able support, if not as much clarity with the text.
The handsome mid-century furniture of Anna Cordingley’s set reflects the central problem of this production – stylish, but ultimately a bit anonymous.
Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until April 7, before it goes to Canberra Theatre Centre April 12 – 21, and Arts Centre Melbourne April 26 – May 13