Although Staunton’s Blackfriars was constructed first, my experience of it comes through having seen several shows previously in the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Virginia’s theatre feels very like the Wanamaker, if the Wanamaker breathed out substantially and took itself a lot less seriously. The resident company (most of the current acting company have been in between 30 and 100 previous productions in the theatre, making this one of the most genuine and enduring ensembles in the business) has performed a phenomenal range of early modern drama, and it was a pleasure to take advantage of a quick stay while giving a talk to see two of their current Shakespeare productions.
The company’s pre-show concerts are a fixture of Blackfriars performances, and perfectly established the luxurious community of Cleopatra’s court. The set – an enormous blanket topped with luxurious cushions – was a centrepiece atop which Cleopatra and her companions reclined, laughed, ate and mocked the stiff, hapless Romans who dared venture in. This was an exclusive world, one filled with rules for managing the Queen’s happiness; in one very entertaining sequence, Alexas and Charmian stood behind Cleopatra and gave mimed instructions to the terrified messenger reporting on Flavia’s defects.
In many ways, Egypt set the tone for the entire production; its self-aware, sexy and confident posturing informing the rhetoric that pervaded the play. At times I found the drawling sarcasm too much, especially in Abbi Hawk’s Charmian who stage-managed Cleopatra’s court with smugness, but what she and the others established effectively was a deliberately exclusive court that worked to maintain a performance for its queen, a performance that was allowed to unravel slowly as the court’s inhabitants were forced to interact more with the Romans. Initially James Keegan’s Antony was able to bring this laconic confidence to his meetings with the triumvirate, hitching his leg over his chair to sprawl while Lepidus and Octavius sat stiffly; later, it was the Egyptians who found themselves having to stand to attention, or prostrate themselves before their conquerors. The potential implicit here for a colonial narrative was perhaps not intentional, but made for an interesting transition.
In the earlier scenes, which took their time and established atmosphere, humour was key. Rick Blunt played Enobarbus as a clown (and, in fact, doubled as the Clown), throwing himself fully into the revels in Egypt and leading both drinking and dancing on Pompey’s barge (including turning a cartwheel which prompted an ovation from the matinee audience). Interestingly, this allowed for a fine hierarchical relationship between him and the more austere Keegan as Antony; all Antony needed to do was say ‘No more light answers’ and the jovial Enobarbus snapped to attention. Keegan’s quiet dignity emphasised Antony’s threat to the Mediterranean world and made sense of Enobarbus’s disappointment in his choices (his calm, diffident insistence on fighting at sea while kissing Cleopatra’s forehead) and his regret at Antony’s kindness following his betrayal.
Against Antony’s relative calmness, Sarah Fallon was an amusingly chaotic Cleopatra, who frequently made to faint before shaking herself out of it in anger, to the bemusement of her handmaids. At the start, Cleopatra’s contradictions and lightning-fast mood swings were as constant as Antony’s steadiness, but Fallon gradually shifted to a more serious performance of contrition and despair as the action moved on. The dynamic was simple, and played rather more for laughs than might have been ideal, but suggested the vital dynamic that kept the two fascinated in one another, punctuated by moments of tenderness.
As the production moved into the second half, the laughs became more of a problem, coupled with the sheer pace of the performances. With a company of twelve doubling several roles each and running on and off stage constantly between the short scenes, important moments were given almost no time to breathe, resulting in too much being lost. Enobarbus’s death scene, in particular, felt played for laughs, with no time left to register his death before the discoverers of the body shrugged and dragged him offstage to laughter from the audience. Antony’s death, too, felt far too comic; the histrionic suicide of Eros contrasting too bluntly with the bathetic failure of Antony to complete his own death. In these moments, the production needed to allow the import of its characters’ actions to resonate for a moment, rather than blow the possibility for emotional reaction.
Never, however, have I seen a company work so hard in ploughing through a long (and little-cut) play in two and a half hours flat. There were joys in the smaller roles; John Harrell was hilarious as a deadpan Mardian and an effete, pompous Thidias; in the latter role especially, he created a powerful arc from the scene from his initial dominance of Cleopatra and his self-assumed command of the stage, through his discomfort and then terror; to the cruel humour of Antony slapping him on his whipped back before having him taken offstage. Chris Johnston was a young and very entertainingly drunken Lepidus who chaired the meeting of the triumvirate with surprising authority and established something of this character’s importance (and that of his downfall). And Stephanie Holladay Earl made a huge amount of her brief appearances as Octavia, showing herself split in affection between brother and husband.
The more serious performances worked well in anchoring particular moments. Allison Glenzer was an excellent Menas, glowering during the barge scene and working hard first to get Pompey’s (Patrick Midgley) attention, then to hide his dissatisfaction with Pompey’s refusal of his plan. The sense of political engineering, with the pace slowed down enough to make clear the import of Menas’s suggestion, made a huge difference to these early scenes and allowed for a bittersweet moment as Menas and Enobarbus threw their cares to the wind to drink together. Gregory Jon Phelps was an awkward and somewhat pompous Octavius, killing the energy of scenes deliberately through his quiet delivery and his unhappy smiles of victory.
The central relationship grew to a point as Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship fractured, the speed of the scenes working against a nuanced understanding of her betrayals but pointing to the tempestuousness of the relationship. Antony was hauled up through the trapdoor to die in Cleopatra’s lap, again prompting some laughter as she refused even then to let him speak, but the precious and too-few moments of quietness punctured the constant performance. Fallon’s work in the final scene, approaching the asp and her elaborate throne with dignity (apart from when she knelt over Iras’s body) made for a visually powerful conclusion, she slumped upright in her throne with her maids at her feet.
The tone of the theatre experience was one of celebration, and Cleopatra was hardly dead before the company were up and bowing. I’d have loved to see what the company could have done with an extra ten or fifteen minutes in terms of emphasising the emotional beats and the significance of key events (the sudden and quickly over trumpeting of Hercules’s ghost in particular springs to mind), but at the heart of this fast-paced Antony and Cleopatra was a heartfelt central relationship surrounded by a vast number of characters jostling for attention and allegiance in a world shifting too quickly to stay fixed in.