Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, based on
a text edited by Janet Suzman. Dir. Alison Hindell. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston,
Geoffrey Streatfeild. BBC Radio 3, 28
till 27 Jan. 2015.
for this revival was set by Elizabeth Purnell’s haunting music, using Middle
East-inspired melodies to conjure up a world of sensuality and passion. This
was the world represented by Cleopatra
(Alex Kingston) into which Mark Antony (Kenneth Branagh) willingly
entered. Its love of food, wine, sex and
language contrasted starkly with the businesslike Roman society personified by
Octavius Caesar (Geoffrey Streatfeild) that seemed almost exclusively concerned
with the day-to-day business of government and – more importantly –
director Alison Hindell was also careful to emphasize the shortcomings of
Cleopatra’s environment. While being
superficially attractive, it also promoted a culture of excess – drunkenness,
lassitude and (above all) disloyalty.
When Enobarbus (Robert Pugh) switched sides that his move was prompted
chiefly by self-interest rather than devotion to his queen. Although he spent
some considerable time
trying to justify his decision, in a long and emotional speech, we felt that he
was simply covering up his own inadequacies.
this kind of environment, it’s not surprising that Antony should have had
doubts about himself and his masculine self-image. Having been brought up in
a Roman culture of
heroism and bravado, he often felt that the sheer notion of falling in love was
a mistake, as it compromised his sense of gender identity. Yet he seemed unable,
or unwilling to escape;
at least in Egypt he was loved for what he was, rather than simply as a great
general forced to contract a marriage of convenience to Octavia (Priyanga
the world she inhabited, Cleopatra had her good and bad sides; on the one hand,
her love of sensuality prevented her from appreciating the political realities
of the current situation. The Romans
were bound to invade her country; and although she could trust in Antony to
fight bravely on her behalf, it seemed that she herself was not too interested
in protecting her nation. Like
Enobarbus, she put herself before her country. On the other hand, when all had
been lost, and
she faced the unedifying prospect of permanent subjection to Octavius’s will,
she came to a rational decision; that is was better to commit suicide rather
than to be colonized. Her death-scene
with the asp was both moving yet inevitable; in the background the asp’s hiss
could be heard, as she bid farewell to her devoted servant Charmian (Janice
Acquah) and sank slowly to the ground, with no sound other than the slight
rustle of her skirts. In death she acquired
the kind of nobility that she had lacked during her reign – even Octavius noted
(with some degree of admiration) that she appeared to be only sleeping.
political terms, Hindell’s revival made us aware of the importance of putting
one’s country’s interests first. It was
all very well to be attracted by sensuality (Antony’s voice kept rising to a
pitch of excitement as he savoured the prospect of future association with
Cleopatrs), but the true ruler – irrespective of gender – should be ready to
repel enemies, whether inside or outside the country. It was perhaps Cleopatra’s
fault that she
failed to notice Enobarbus’s inconstant nature and remove him from her inner
circle; perhaps she trusted him too much.
Antony was perhaps also to blame for trusting in his capacity to defeat
his enemies, without realizing that such abilities had been severely
compromised through his association with Cleopatra.
yet we, as listeners, could well understand and sympathize why Antony and
Cleopatra had taken the decision to put themselves first. This was what Purnell’s
music indicated; that
the sensual life could prove highly attractive, especially to those such as
Antony who had perhaps never experienced it before, and might never have done
so, had he not come into contact with Cleopatra. Sometimes the need to gratify
too great for those brought up in an ascetic world; it was Antony’s tragedy to
have succumbed to this impulse.
and Kingston’s verse-speaking offered a fascinating contrast of styles,
appropriate to their respective characters.
Branagh came across as a rather bouncy character, fond of public
utterances yet not particularly adept at handling his feelings in private. Kingston
spoke far more languidly, as if
brought up in a culture where time assumed peripheral significance. During her
death scene, however, she understood
the importance of what she was doing, and her voice soared into a series of
grand crescendos that were memorable to hear.
straightforward yet haunting production, making us well aware of the
difficulties attendant on anyone faced with the responsibility of leadership,
yet trying at the same time to make sense of their inner feelings.