Those who were there witnessed a dynamic and compelling Cleopatra from Frances Barber; it’s a pity that the rest of the cast couldn’t compete with her. There have been plenty of disappointing productions of this play in the last few years but Barber brought life to Dominic Dromgoole’s rather staid production: to labour the footballing metaphor, it was rather like watching the rest of the players trying to keep with France’s Zinedine Zidane.
Barber’s is the best Cleopatra I’ve seen since Judi Dench’s in the mid-1980s. But whereas Dench’s was a portrayal aware of her failing sexual allure, Barber’s is full of fire; a woman well aware of her powerful sexuality, flirting with her servants (male, female and eunuch alike) and well aware of her volatility. Her scene with the messenger bringing news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia is genuinely scary.
Nicholas Jones’ Antony is nowhere near her equal. I certainly got no sense of his martial qualities. With his precise, slightly camp delivery, he sounds more like a Chipping Camden antique dealer than the most feared soldier in the civilised world. I imagine that Dromgoole is trying to convey the contrast between the sensual East and the more rational West, but it looks more like a mismatch. This Cleopatra would have worn this Antony out in weeks. It’s also a strange decision to make Antony’s suicide an almost comic event. He trips rather than falls on his sword – perhaps it’s the way that such a vacillating Antony would have done it, but it’s disconcerting hearing chortles of laughter in such a pivotal scene.
The rest of the cast doesn’t catch fire either. Fred Ridgeway’s rather dull Enobarbus makes “the barge she sat in” speech sound like a travelogue for a Nile tour company, and Jack Laskey’s Octavius seems more like a peevish youth than a manipulative statesman. Only Frances Thorburn’s Charmian and John Bett as Lepidus and a scene-stealing clown catch the eye. Belinda Sykes’ evocative vocal score greatly enhances the production, lending an additional air of melancholy to the proceedings.
But it’s Barber’s performance that will be remembered. Too much of the rest is forgettable.
- Maxwell Cooter