I haven't seen too many productions to compare this one to - in 1986 I saw Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Dalton make bricks from the straw of Toby Robinson's production and Helen Mirren needed a chiropractor after carrying the 1998 National Theatre production for the length of it's misguided run with no help from Alan Rickman's Eeyore-like Antony.
Jonathan Munby's is certainly the best production of the play I have seen, it had a fluidity and a pace that built up it's own momentum as our ageing lovers raced to their own destinies. It had an unfussy design which did not distract from the text and I liked Colin Richmond's design choice of having the Egyptians in classical garb while the Romans wore sober Jacobean tunics.
Shakespeare's play has forty scenes - the most in all of his works - and with 34 speaking characters, one can be forgiven for wanting to press a pause button and say "hang on hang on... what happened to Sextus Pompey again?"
But for all it's politicking, this always takes second place to the ever-changing status of the title character's love-affair - they love, they bicker, they make up, they argue - and all the time they don't notice that the Empire they are ruling is vanishing beneath their feet until it is too late.
Any production depends on an equal balance of power between the two lovers, a good reason why the National Theatre was so woeful, but here Clive Wood and Eve Best were believable as both lovers and combatants.
Wood had just the right air of battered steel to make him believable as the ex-Roman general but also played the downfall of Antony with just the right world-weariness and self-disgust. Eve Best... ah Eve Best. I have seen her so often play the repressed wallflower - MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, THE HEIRESS - always there with a sniffle and a hankie up her jacket-sleeve so it was good to see her playing so against this type.
It was a fascinating performance - with one flaw. Her Cleopatra was wonderfully mercurial, shifting like Egyptian sand: playful, demanding, insecure, aggressive, scornful and proud. However after Antony's death, Cleopatra is truly alone and having to confront the cold-hearted Octavian who she knows wants to make her his prisoner and will not capitulate to her famous wiles.
Cleopatra knows there is only one escape and Shakespeare raises his game to match her coming demise. He gives her wonderful speeches and in her final moments she proclaims her immortality to the ages, knowing that she is about to ascend into her own legend. But Eve Best remained resolutely earthbound, muted to the end. My immediate response was that this would be a fantastic performance in the Donmar or the Almeida but in this open-air venue which cries out for performances sent out into the void, it was a bit of a damp squib; it robbed Cleopatra of her glory.
The two leads were supported by a good supporting cast, most of them doubling up to fill the requirements of the play: Philip Correia as a boastful Sextus Pompey, a player about to get played by his fellow-Romans as well as a compassionate Dollabella; James Hayes as good as ever as Lepidus, another pawn in the game between Octavian and Antony, as well as the last-minute comic relief of the snake man and Peter Bankolé stood out as the hapless messenger who has to inform Cleopatra that Antony has married Octavian's sister and then as Eros, Antony's loyal aide.
Sirine Saba was a playful Charmian, Cleopatra's faithful servant, nicely playing the early scene when the Soothsayer informs her she will outlive her mistress, while Jolyon Coy was a chilly Octavian, always plotting Antony's downfall and proving himself Cleopatra's nemesis. The best supporting performance however was Phil Daniels as Enobarbus. With excellent diction and wonderful timing, he stole every scene he was in and deservedly earned a round when he exited after delivering the famous "The barge she sat in..." speech.
The production plays until August 24th and I highly recommend it. I am now looking forward to seeing the Globe's JULIUS CAESAR in a month's time.
ps. If you can get seats in the front of the gallerys you also get a small amount of gold glitter to sprinkle over the rail at Antony and Cleopatra's wedding parade - I think I sprinkled with a grace that even Will would have approved of!