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Antony And Cleopatra by The RSC - Review

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Actor Josette Simon Has Infinite Variety
The last time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) put on Antony and Cleopatra four years ago, it opted for a young Cleopatra in a sexy and passionate version from director Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Photo by Helen Maybanks, Antony and cleopatra, Josette Simon, Antony Byrne, Rome season, RSC.
Antony and Cleopatra is part of the RSC's Rome Season. Photo credit Helen Maybanks

This time around, director Iqbal Khan has chosen to show a more mature couple, ravaged by time and experience, who have been drawn together by not just seduction but also a meeting of minds.

It means the role of Cleopatra is refreshingly played by an actress in her late 50's - Josette Simon.

Well known in the 1980's for her part as Dayna Mellanby in Blake's 7 and now an award-winning stage actress who is also a RSC and National Theatre regular, she has got under the skin of the African queen, giving a multi-dimensional performance that leaves in no doubt Cleopatra's infinite variety.

Simon shines bright as Cleopatra and dominates the production with her masterful performance showing the playful, insecure Queen as sometimes childish, often changeable, but always regal.

Photo by Helen Maybanks, Antony and cleopatra, Josette Simon, Antony Byrne, Rome season, RSC.
Josette Simon shines as Cleopatra. Photo credit Helen Maybanks

I caught Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where it is being performed as part of the RSC's Rome Season, which plays in repertoire with Julius Caesar until September 7. It's accompanying other Shakespeare plays this year of Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus too.

The grand set, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, brings alive the era, moving seamlessly between the imposing columns of Rome where the most powerful negotiate in a bathhouse to the relaxed charm of Egypt, where a huge curtain swathes the stage and large sphinx cat statues stand over the action. Award-winning singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, from Birmingham, has even helped distinguish between these opposing worlds as her soundtrack is responsible for the brass horn authoritative air to the Rome scenes and gentler, seductive atmosphere in Egypt.

Even grander are the many outifts of Cleopatra. The golden war-dress, shinpads and headpiece is particularly striking, but all these costume changes make her final emotional speech more raw when she strips down to nakedness with a shaved head. It's powerful stuff but so is Simon's performance.

Photo by Helen Maybanks, Antony and cleopatra, Josette Simon, Antony Byrne, Rome season, RSC.
Tender scenes in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo credit Helen Maybanks

It's not all about Simon and playing her Antony is the accomplished RSC actor Antony Byrne. He makes the Roman commander seem wistful and weak in comparison to his lover. He shows more command when in Rome or on the battlefield, but maybe that's the point. His subtle dismissiveness of avoiding Octavia's kisses when forced into an arranged marriage is also a nice touch.

In comparison, there are tender scenes between Antony and Cleopatra, particularly in the latter stages, when she climbs on his lap and wraps herself around him in anguish. The human side of their famous love story is never more apparent than at this point when they are alone and know their time is up.

While it's a long production (at 3.5 hours including the interval) of a complex play, Khan makes a good attempt to simplify the war plot by using toy battleships.

Photo by Helen Maybanks, Antony and cleopatra, Josette Simon, Antony Byrne, Rome season, RSC.
Andrew Woodall as Enobarbus with Antony Byrne as Antony. Photo credit Helen Maybanks

Khan's forte, however, is getting to the heart of the relationships and motivations at the core of the story. He showed this exceptionally in his successful 2015 RSC production of Othello starring Hugh Quarshie and he does it again here.

He showcases the devotion of Antony to his lover, the insecurities of a mistress by Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar's jealousy and desire to supplant Antony, the man he fears most. While there's also the loyalty of Antony's all-knowing soldier Enobarbus, who is made a distinctive character by actor Andrew Woodall.

This new RSC version of Antony and Cleopatra gives a new take on the relationship in an iconic love story, but most of all, it is a tour de force by Josette Simon, whose created a Cleopatra that sets the bar for years to come.


Antony and Cleopatra by the RSC
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Waterside, Stratford upon Avon, CV37 6BB
Until 7 September , 2017
This play will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 24 May, 2017.

Tickets cost from 10 by calling 01789 403493 or visiting the RSC website.
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Why? New version of classic love story
When: Until September 7, 2017
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 10
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