That theatre royalty was present was apparent on arrival, right down to the red carpet. The place was packed and I’ve heard that even at this point in the run tickets are hard to get hold of. The stage looked striking even before the curtain went up, with a series of pendant lamps signifying Cleopatra’s court gleaming through the gauze. Indeed, designer Peter Mackintosh’s set was impressive with its strong verticals and flying in and out of lamps and gauzy fabrics which helped distinguish one location from the next in some fast paced scenes that may otherwise have been confusing. His use of space was clever; the Playhouse is particularly difficult with its shallow stage. Employing an elevated gantry/catwalk which stood for alternative locations including the decks of ships not only made good use of the space but also solved many of Shakespeare’s beloved eavesdropping issues without needing an ‘arras’ for people to (unbelievably) hide behind. Mackintosh’s simple but dramatic sets were complemented by Corin Buckeridge’s vivid, almost melodramatic music. Alongside Suzman’s direction, this made for a very clean and crisp production, at least in the first half. Shakespeare’s idiom has rarely been this easy for a modern audience to grasp, and this clarity aided us in hearing afresh the beauty of the language. Even the more familiar lines and now hackneyed phrases sounded new, and I think we have Suzman to thank for that.
There were though a couple of issues with the first half. The first was the interpretation of Cleopatra. I will allow that Cleopatra is enigmatically written to say the least, and it is difficult to know from the script just how much she loves Anthony and how much this is political expediency. However in this production Cleopatra is really just toying with Anthony. While that may be a fair reading it doesn’t help us make a lot of sense of what follows. More importantly I think, whatever Cleopatra is up to she is a queen, a very proud one, and one who in no way shies away from political intrigue. In the first half of this production she is much more like a petulant teenager, and her behaviour seems to have more to do with weighing Anthony’s affections for fun than manipulating him to a greater purpose. Cleopatra should be capricious but this one lacks gravitas; and this is very much in contrast to Kissoon’s Anthony, who retains a sense of majesty even in his dissolution. He has the gravitas Cleopatra is lacking, one can well believe he commanded armies and conquered nations. All of this gives the lie to the line that he ‘...is not more man-like/Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy/More womanly than he’; and this line is central to this part of the play.
The second issue is even more fundamental. This is a play about the power of sex. Whether she loves him or not, Cleopatra’s sexual power over Anthony is enough to make him throw away his rule over a third of the Roman world. I’m guessing that this means her potency is not inconsiderable. And although Cattrall is certainly sexy (she does in fact look very beautiful), and I’m happy to say Kissoon has not lost his sex appeal, I’m afraid that in this production there is no sexual chemistry between the two whatsoever. It is hard to believe they ever had sex, never mind still feel enough passion for each other to enter into this folie à deux. While Suzman is right that the play doesn’t need a sanitised, Hollywood, hearts and flowers love affair, it does need some kind of rationale for what happens next. And this was not apparent. This is a serious flaw.
In some ways the second half is more difficult than the first. Shakespeare’s play is frustrating as much of the interesting action happens either before the play starts or offstage and is only reported, and this second half is a little fragmented with excursions and alarums that we glimpse as if from the corner of our eye. However, bolstering this half is Cattrall’s Cleopatra, who seems to have matured considerably during the interval. She begins the half with a command and majesty not even hinted at in the first acts, and this dignity grows and becomes more proud and commanding throughout and to the inevitable melodramatic end. This Cleopatra not only makes better sense of the play but suits the production better. On the other hand, as Anthony’s majesty decreases so does some of Kissoon’s command of the character, and there is a point at which he has a touch of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. Overall though it is a bravura performance that surely hints at a fabulous Lear to come.
So does the play hold together? Well it does, partly thanks to the strength of the rest of the cast. Martin Hutson is superb, playing Octavius Caesar as some kind of Milliband, a cross between a scornful civil servant and an arch politician, and one not to be underestimated at any cost. He is ruthless and scheming, with such a clear, single-minded focus that he can only ever triumph. This performance is so compelling you wish Shakespeare had seen it and written more scenes for him, and it is he who really sustains our interest. Ian Hogg’s Enobarbus is also very good, and he gives the gold barge speech as if he was there, a difficult task given that it is possibly the most well known speech in the play. Aïcha Kossoko and Gracy Goldman as Charmian and Iras are the Supremes to Cleopatra’s Diana Ross, and Kossoko in particular expresses every moment of her journey. The direction helps in some ways, and while Suzman makes some odd choices (can anyone tell me why Caesar’s sister is played by a man?) and despite some longeurs in the second half, it largely keeps your attention, and there is no denying the grasp of language. Is it worth seeing? There is certainly enough good stuff here to spend your evening on – Caesar alone should sustain you - and some issues in the second half may iron themselves out as the run continues. And it would be daft to miss this rare opportunity to see such performers in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. However the real tragedy on this stage was that at the tragic and dramatic end, I just didn’t care enough.