On the 24th of May 2017, all Year 12 English Literature students travelled up to Stratford Upon Avon to enjoy a sunny exploration of Shakespeare’s birthplace and to see a production of Antony and Cleopatra. Put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), the play itself is the sequel to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and follows protagonists Cleopatra and Mark Antony and their role within the Roman Empire. The story begins with Antony falling in love with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, and settling in Alexandria. However, he is compelled to return to Rome when the empire is threatened by the rebellion of Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey, an enemy of Julius Caesar. Following the death of his wife Fulvia, Antony marries Octavius’ sister, Octavia, in an attempt to heal the rift between the two emperors, and subsequently makes peace with Pompey. When Cleopatra hears of Antony’s marriage she flies into a jealous rage despite knowing that Antony does not love Octavia. When war breaks out between Caesar and Pompey, Antony allows Octavia home to Rome and returns to Egypt. In the fashion of Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra asks a servant to tell Antony she is dead, who in response tries to kill himself. Though eventually realising that Cleopatra is still alive, his self-inflicted wound proves fatal. The Roman Empire, under the rule of victor Octavius, comes to Egypt to take over, and Cleopatra, not wanting to endure the shame of living under Romans commits suicide via asp bite.
The set, though minimalistic, proved very effective. In the first act they had a temple structure at the back of the thrust stage, used as an entrance and exit for actors, along with side doors. When the location changed from Rome to Egypt, not only did the lighting change to a warm yellow wash, but trap doors were also used to bring up Egyptian statues of cats. This helped the audience to follow the jumps between locations and made for efficient transitions. The second act opened with a set change to more derelict Roman walls and a very creative use of model ships. As seen in films when battles are taking place, large model ships with long wooden handles were pushed back and forth across the stage as though it was strategic map to represent the shifting tides of the battle, with one ships even catching fire at the end. The only other major set change was when a ship was recreated on stage. Pin holes in the floor allowed ropes to be stretched and secured as though rigging, and with a huge red and white sail appearing at the back of the stage the RSC interpretation of a ship was built right in front of the audience's eyes.
The performance was aided with live music from one of the boxes in the circle of the audience. In the opening of the performance, actors dressed in Egyptian headdresses and masks entered the stage, accompanied by loud and powerful music, interacting through physical theatre. As this was happening a bed was raised from underneath the stage, before resting centre stage, with Antony and Cleopatra laying on it as the music died down and the dancers exited. The actress playing Cleopatra (Josette Simon) wore a basic linen dress that emphasised her natural beauty, whereas Antony (Antony Bryne) wore a linen shirt lined with a red strip and plain red knee length shorts. Both leads were very strong throughout the show and gave convincing and dynamic performances, while the whole cast worked well together, making it an enjoyable and easy watch. However, the standout role was the Queen of Egypt herself. With a character that has so many mood swings and ulterior motives throughout, it can be hard to make a clear representation of her high status and power in the play, though this proved no trouble for Simon, who took on the role with great strength, creating a very believable and manipulative character. Along with her two handmaids, any stage time they had was enjoyed by all, making their deaths at the end even more painful for the audience.
The performance will continue in Stratford until September 2017 before moving, cast and set, to the Barbican Theatre in central London. The running time is 2 hours and 57 minutes, (with a 20 minute interval), and while this may seem like a long time, the outstanding performances and innovative use of staging makes the time fly by. Anyone looking to see a contemporary piece of Shakespearean theatre should definitely book tickets for this incredible production.
Orginial Image by Lizzie Debonnaire