By William Shakespeare Directed by Jonathan Munby Presented by the Globe Theatre on 29 July 2014
Cleopatra, the alluring and fascinatingly ambiguous Queen of Egypt, has bewitched the great Mark Antony, soldier, campaigner and now one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire. When Antony quarrels with his fellow leaders and throws in his lot with Cleopatra, his infatuation threatens to split the Empire in two. Virtue and vice, transcendent love and realpolitik combine in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s greatest exploration of the conflicting claims of sex and power, all expressed in a tragic poetry of breathtaking beauty and magnificence.
The stage was smoking, incense wafting up between the boards of the extension at the front, which made more room for both war and for lolling about in luxury. Carpets and cushions are scattered about, stepped around by nimble red-robed dancers and Cleopatra’s women in anything-but-virginal white, and doing moves designed to do anything but “cool a gipsy’s lust” (1.1.10).
Eve Best comes on, barefoot, in leather breeches and flowing robes, shaking a sword, every inch a “wrangling queen” (53). Clive Wood is a fine match as Antony, once a soldier in the field now indulging in “lascivious wassails” (he’s more used to swinging his pearl earrings than a sword). A woman wearing the trousers and a man swept across whole seas by passion — the order of nature is already topsy-turvy and tragedy is the inevitable outcome. We expect Antony to think of nobility in martial terms, in terms of power politics and conquest. Not for him such a “Roman thought”: instead the nobleness of life is “to do thus” (39) — he grabs Cleopatra for a long, lingering snog.
What they get up to before the next scene is hinted at by Cleopatra’s entrance at 1.2.65 in a large, white bath towel (Egyptian cotton?), with not much if anything on underneath. She strides to the front of the stage as confidently as any of us might into our bedrooms after a shower, the difference being that we’re not at the centre of a packed Globe. Enobarbus is already a bit tipsy, and still finding his way around the stage, half tripping over some cushions.
For scene 1.5, a bed is wheeled on, and two great tapestries are lowered a little for the purpose of wafting the reclining queen. This is when we realized just how restricted our “restricted view” seats (E5–7) were: in my line of sight were the timber post of the gallery and the larger stage column, which completely obscured what Best was doing with her women. Whatever it was, it got a big laugh.
We couldn’t miss the entrance of Pompey, Menecrates and Menas in a “warlike manner” (2.1) — two of them abseiled onto stage from the balcony like SAS soldiers in full black gear.
Enobarbus meets up with his old muckers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and is soon getting into his storytelling stride (2.2.216–17):
This was but as a fly by an eagle: we had much more monstrous matter of feast, which worthily deserved noting.
Phil Daniels round this off with a brilliantly blokish chuckle, as unlikely a precursor to one of the great poetic speeches in all of Shakespeare as a beery belch, but somehow entirely fitting (224):
The barge she sat in…
This paints a picture of an aloof queen, regal in her distance (which is supported by the text), but in performance Best plays to the strengths of the Globe and conducts a remarkable bit of audience interaction as she calls for her fishing tackle and her “bended hook” (2.5.13). Even though she was at the far end of the stage, we could see her bend down, having selected an older gentleman from the front row, who gets rewarded with a kiss and envious laughter (which seems so infectious that both she and Charmian were in danger of corpsing). In a few lines she’s both berating and cajoling the messenger, burying his head in her bosom on “a province I will give thee” (83).
Menas makes the mistake of revealing his plan to Pompey before carrying it out, and Pompey is not best pleased (2.7.71–72):
Ah, this thou shouldst have done
And not have spoke on’t.
What is a minion to do? When Exton murdered Richard without speaking to the newly crowned Henry IV, the king was furious.
The news that Octavia is 30 (see Age cannot wither her) does not go down well with Cleopatra, and Best pauses at the edge of the stage with an expression I can’t see but which produces another huge laugh.
Just before the interval she enters in a gorgeous golden cloak with a magnificently gawdy headdress, scattering gold dust in their wake as they process through the groundlings. The front row of the balcony have been primed with their own little glitter bags and soon there are golden showers (not that kind) all round the Globe.
In contrast to this splendor, after the interval Antony will soon be staggering about drunk with a stained shirt and raging against underlings. The first sight that greets us on returning is a dead goat being eviscerated, to give the soothsayer something to go on (and the rest of us something to put us off our snacks). Poor Thidias is dragged off and whipped, and brought back on with the stripes visible on his back. Antony gives him a hearty slap on his back to send him packing, a nice piece of malicious petty violence.
As Antony’s temper flares up, he’s conscious of a cooling of Cleopatra (3.13.187):
Cold-hearted toward me?
He hugs her, mechanically placing each of her hanging arms around his waist.
Caesar’s entrance gets a big laugh (4.1.1):
He calls me boy…
There was a particularly annoying and enthusiastic woman in about seat B57 who took it upon herself to be the first to clap energetically at the death of Enobarbus. Daniels made a good fist of it, from what I could see, but Antony’s botched attempt drew a big laugh, in part encouraged by Wood. In fact, again from what I could see, this was a deliberate move to milk the moment: he gestures, apologetically, both for his character’s incompetence and the playwright’s plotting.
Since where he was lying was to become the monument, he had to be dragged offstage and then brought back on, hauled on in fact by Cleopatra and her women forming a mini tug of war team with a big red rope.
My enjoyment was impaired not only by the poor sightlines but by being dog tired (I even considered bailing out at the interval, not because the performance wasn’t up to scratch but because I wasn’t up to scratch). No GBs and no TJs.