Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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Antony and 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 Dec. 2014. 

BBCiPlayer till 27 Jan. 2015.


The tone 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 – colonization.


Yet 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.


In 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 Burford).


Like 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.


In 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.


And 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 oneself proves too great for those brought up in an ascetic world; it was Antony’s tragedy to have succumbed to this impulse.


Branagh 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.


A 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.