Iqbal Khan’s swiftly moving, ever-bustling production of Antony and Cleopatra superabounds with sex, death and exoticism. From the outset we are invited into a world that is Other: a hypnotic tribal dance dissolves suddenly to reveal a sexually-charged, post-romp exchange between two radically divergent figures. This spectacular clash of cultural and physical difference sustains our wonder for a good while: a tall, black, slender Cleopatra prowls the stage like a feline on heat, while the pink-skinned, ginger-haired Antony is more porcine than cat. Cleopatra is royalty born and bred, bidding and dispatching her many minions with cruel capriciousness, while Antony, clearly of common stock, comes soaked in the sweat of battlefield and barracks. While opposites, as the adage goes, attract, this takes us to a whole new level.
And while Josette Simon’s performance is undeniably memorable, perhaps even show-stealing, it is difficult to get a grasp on. Her voice does unusual things. At one stage she mimics a squeaky pitched little girl, and at others drops to a heavy, African bass, but even in her ‘normal’ register she gives us a kind of rarefied Jamaican lilt, with heavy stresses hurled onto every fourth or fifth word. Sometimes she swallows her words entirely, so that there is this odd hiatus between her already very odd utterances. And there is so much lispy sibilance going on you can’t help but think of the snake that will eventually undo her. All this while she dances around the stage, swooping and swirling, perhaps dry humping her servant here, or inflicting injuries on her messenger there, so that one is always wondering what the hell it is she is going to do next. This is not Shakespeare as I know it, or Cleopatra as I know her, but something quite Other, which is, to be fair, exactly what Cleopatra is meant to be. And so what we are given is a performance that is quite wonderful. Or not.
Antony Byrne’s gritty Mark Antony, meanwhile, gives us something more rooted and familiar, not least in the occasional, accentual nod towards Yorkshire. Ben Allen offers us a preppy and puppyish Octavius Caesar while Amber James charms as the mindlessly dedicated, hopelessly subjugated Charmian.
There is a curious scene in which model ships, pushed manually across the floor, portray the unfolding progress of naval battle. This is an interesting device and we might have bought into the terms of its own making, but when two actors start brawling on the ocean floor and one or two of the ships are swung through the air, the effect is messy and becomes something akin to the mixed metaphor. There is no doubting the pleasure and surprise prompted, however, when one of the ships bursts into flames and slowly descends, by way of a hidden platform, into the depths of the ocean.
Robert Innes Hopkin’s lush, ever dynamic set punctuates an uneven production that doesn’t always engage. And the famous asp scene is both intentionally and unintentionally funny. It isn’t Josette Simon’s fault that the toy snake she removes from the basket looks like a toy snake. But we are being invited to laugh, presumably, when she impatiently provokes the snake into biting her by punching it.
Yes, even her dying moments are bemusing and nutty. Simon is always working her Cleopatra, but I’m not sure her Cleopatra always works. On this, I think, there will be a clean divide. To quote Puccini, “Let the audience decide.”