The Royal Shakespeare Company continues its now-annual winter West End residency with Antony and Cleopatra, which opened to unanimously positive reviews on Monday (15 January 2007, following previews from 11 January) at the Novello Theatre (See News, 25 Aug 2006).

Last April, Gregory Doran’s production – which stars Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles - launched the RSC’s year-long Complete Works Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it continued in rep until October 2006. At the Novello, it runs until 17 February 2007.

Opening night critics were captivated by the performances of the two leads as the ageing lovers grasping their last, passionate fling with gusto. Stewart in particular received acclaim as a masterly actor of Shakespeare from several reviewers. Some felt the production sat more comfortably at the RSC’s Stratford home in the more intimate Swan theatre, but all were impressed by Doran’s tight, clear direction driven along by a universally strong company.

  • Maxwell Cooter on (5 stars) - “Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter both give peerless performances as the doomed lovers. However, Doran doesn’t neglect the political machinations at the heart of the play and he delivers a heady mix of the political and the personal, while also drawing out more comedy than usual…. Stewart’s love-sick, fawning Antony is completely captivated by Walter’s sensuous but capricious queen, but there’s also a real sense that this is an Antony who…. is torn between his sexual desire and his military hunger…. What also sets the production alight is the relationship between Octavius and Antony. John Hopkins’ twitchy, neurotic Caesar cannot disguise his envy of the virile, charismatic Antony, while Stewart is a man fully aware of his failing powers and resentful of the youth of his nemesis…. There’s also an excellent performance by Ken Bones as an Enobarbus whose cynicism is over-shadowed by self-hatred… With rock-solid performances all round, where every word is uttered with absolute clarity, and as good a central pairing as you can get, this is Shakespearean theatre at its best.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “As that magnificently smitten couple… Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter made a big, memorable impression last April at Stratford-upon-Avon's Swan Theatre. Transferred to the larger, traditional Novello stage, Gregory Doran's production has sadly lost much of its originality, its intimate focus and forcefulness…. the complexities and subtleties of the couple's relationship have been ironed out…. Their relationship remains larky, sparky but is no longer overwhelming…. This Antony and Cleopatra has, however, improved dramatically where it deals with imperial politics and warfare. John Hopkins' superb Octavius… creates an ominous atmosphere of distrust and suspicion…. Ariyon Bakare's Pompey leads a swaggering troop of sailors…. Ken Bones makes a wonderful, craggy skull-capped Enobarbus…. The battles that burst out as the triumvirate falls apart are magnificently managed in an expressionistic haze of smoke, darkness and Adrian Lee's evocative music. Ironically, this Antony and Cleopatra succeeds best with military rather than sexual warfare.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “In Gregory Doran's excellent production, imported from Stratford's Swan, Patrick Stewart offers the best Antony since Michael Redgrave half a century ago…. Stewart's secret is to suggest that Antony, although sexually enthralled by Cleopatra, is primarily a soldier most at ease in the world of men…. He gives us a magnificently wounded lion: one haunted by the memory that he was once king of the jungle. This in no way diminishes Harriet Walter's remarkable Cleopatra… In his presence, she is witty, playful and teasing. In his absence, Walter conveys the restless volatility that marks true love. It is a consummately intelligent performance…. The other discovery in a cliché-free production is John Hopkins' Octavius Caesar. Rather than the desiccated calculating-machine he is usually seen as, in Hopkins' hands he becomes a breathtakingly tormented neurotic, appalled at Antony's descent into sexual enslavement.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “Patrick Stewart proved to any residual doubter that he was much more than a bald bloke traversing the universe in space-age couture…. His Antony is as good as any you’ll see: a lion whose claim to be king of the jungle is still strong but dwindling daily as he succumbs to age and sexual temptation…. But then Antony isn’t as challenging a role as Cleopatra, who is burdened with the task of embodying ‘infinite variety’. She must be wily, erotic, arrogant, manipulative, loving and far, far more. So who can blame that fine actress, Harriet Walter, for failing to embrace all her contradictions?... She twists and turns and plays mischievous games with Antony… but she lacks the emotional ferocity, the danger and, above all, the sensuality that Frances Barber brought to the role in a less adroit revival at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer…. Doran’s RSC production remains clear, direct, pacey…. It’s also thanks to a consistency of performance that we haven’t always associated with the RSC in recent years…. There’s plenty of thoughtful detail in this revival.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “I was blown away by the show at the Swan last April, and it seems just as magnificent the second time around in the bigger and less hospitable Novello. There isn't a dud performance among the cast… nor a moment when Doran and his outstanding company seem to be misreading the piece…. Stewart and Walter… achieve a thrilling sense of love and passion that is all the more touching because there is so much humour and sexy teasing in their relationship. Stewart brilliantly captures the once loyal imperialist soldier who has gone native, keenly aware that his time is running out and that his affair with Cleopatra is his big last chance of romance and lust. But there is a delicious sense of irony even in his love-making, an awareness that his middle-aged infatuation is faintly ridiculous…. This sense of the ridiculous mingling with the tragic is also evident in Walter's superb performance. Her variety may not quite be infinite, but it is hugely impressive, as she mixes passion and loss, glamour and deceit, majesty with the tantrums of a spoilt child.”

  • Alice Jones in the Independent (4 stars) – "Doran's relentlessly pacey production bestrides comedy, tragedy, history and politics; having moved from the intimate Swan, it easily fills its larger, gilded surroundings at the Novello.... Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart are excellent as the eponymous lovers. From the opening scenes, their childish chemistry erases the years as they tickle, whip, pet and devour one another.... Walter is not immediately striking as the Egyptian queen, lacking in the stature and sultriness traditionally associated with the role, but when she reclines in her luminous gold cloak, she really does take on the bewitching mystery of a sphinx. Her capriciousness is a joy to behold.... Stewart is eminently watchable.... His Antony is mercurial, moving effectively from playboy general, giddy with lust and power, to an ageing drunk in a sweat-stained tunic, rocking on his heels and cradling his head in his hands as he loses his self-control."

    - by Caroline Ansdell