There was a packed crowd for the opening night of Antony and Cleopatra - many, no doubt, drawn by the novelty value of Mark Rylance s Cleopatra. Director Giles Block hoped that the audience would not see this as a gimmick and that, once the initial appearance of a be-rouged and be-wigged Rylance had had its effect, the audience would settle down and concentrate on the rest of the play.
There was never really a chance of that happening, though. The inspiration for the all-male casting might have been an attempt at Shakespearean verisimilitude, but in the initial scenes, at least, the practice seemed to derive its inspiration from the Carry On series.
In particular, Rylance seems to have a very peculiar idea of how women behave. In his eye, they skip, they giggle a lot and speak in shrill voices - perhaps it s a portrayal that s more akin to how men perceive women to be. Occasionally, this overplaying has a powerful effect - the scene where he quizzes the messenger about Octavia s beauty is exceptionally well done, for while his barbs are directed at Octavia, his expansive gestures ensure that Cleopatra s vanity and insecurity is equally parodied.
The problem that Block has created is that, by drawing attention to the comic elements, the more serious parts of the play are treated with levity. Thus, Antony s attempt at suicide is met by a hearty guffaw, which turns into howling laughter in his final scene with Cleopatra. So we have one of the tenderest scenes in English drama garnering more laughs than the average sitcom.
Paul Shelley s Antony seems overwhelmed at first and, although he recovers his poise by the end, his is never a convincing performance. John McEnery never appears quite at ease with Enobarbus and Ben Walden s Octavius is particularly bland.
It s Rylance s performance that everyone has come to see, but it's not until the last scene that he really delivers the goods, throwing off the persona of a pantomime dame to prove he can act. Locked in the monument, with head shaved and face scarred, he dresses up in Cleopatra s robes for the death scene - a last, defiant gesture from a ruler much given to impulsive gestures. There is a real touching quality here.
But for a really successful example of men playing women you have to look further to Danny Sapani s Charmian. Here is an actor who doesn t feel the need to portray a crude stereotype - he demonstrates a sexiness and a warmth that is completely missing from Cleopatra.
This is an interesting production of Antony and Cleopatra - and one that gets better as it goes along. But nevertheless, try as it might, it never really shakes off the knockabout stuff at the beginning.