The transfer of Gregory Doran’s production from the Swan has been long awaited. And the London first-night audience was not to be disappointed as 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 still hungers to be a soldier and would easily settle for a night of hard drinking with the boys and a hard bed. Stewart brilliantly captures the way Antony is torn between his sexual desire and his military hunger.

But 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. Their relationship defines the play almost as much as that of the lovers and Doran brings out every nuance of this.

There’s also an excellent performance by Ken Bones as an Enobarbus whose cynicism is over-shadowed by self-hatred; trapped by his sybaritic lifestyle and his devotion to Antony.

I wasn’t lucky enough to see this at the Swan, where I’m sure the more intimate surroundings would have heightened the intensity of the drama. But with rock-solid performances all round, where every word is uttered with absolute clarity, and a good a central pairing as you can get, this is Shakespearean theatre at its best.

- Maxwell Cooter

Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from April 2006 and this production's earlier Stratford run.

It seems, on the face of it, wilful to stage the grandeur of Antony and Cleopatra in the intimacy of the Swan, while next door, Romeo and Juliet plays the main auditorium. With a struggle for the mastery of the world at its heart, Antony and Cleopatra is an epic if ever there was one, beside which Romeo and Juliet, with its two feuding Paduan families, is small potatoes.

The more so given the shortcomings of the production of Romeo and Juliet which, while attractive to look at, would work better in a smaller space. And if two actors could be relied on to command the hangar that is the RST, with all its acoustic shortcomings, those actors are Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter.

Happily, Gregory Doran's production of Antony and Cleopatra, which sees the welcome return of RSC veteran Stewart, sometime 'star-crossed' captain of the USS Enterprise, works admirably. By eschewing large sets and big effects, the focus is thrown on to the relationship at the centre of the play which is played with enormous skill, by Stewart as Antony, and Walter as Cleopatra.

The play moves fluently with pace and, throughout, there is the close attention to the text and telling detail that characterises Doran's direction. There's a lovely moment when, after bidding goodbye to Cleopatra to fight a second and decisive battle at sea, Cleopatra extends her arms to Antony who turns away.

It's a joy to watch - and listen to - actors of the calibre of Stewart, with those rich tones, and Walter, superb five years ago here in Macbeth. There's an early scare when Walter first appears, wearing an unconvincing wig. Happily, she soon removes it and, by the final monument scene, she is magnificent.

Stewart's performance perhaps doesn't quite match hers, but the production movingly bears out Auden's observation that the real enemy here is time from which Antony and Cleopatra are in flight. And one is reminded of Auden's view that, if he could save only one of Shakespeare's plays, this would be it.

Around the two stars, there’s stellar support, most notably from John Hopkins as a permanently simmering Octavius Caesar and Ken Bones as Enobarbus. Credit too to Peter de Jersey, who stepped in to take over the role of Pompey at short notice.

- Pete Wood