The posters around the National Theatre these days are prominently advertising Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, Terry Johnson s new play based on the Carry On films. So when the lights went up on Sean Mathias new production of Shakespeare s famous love story, there was a brief moment when I thought I d gone into the wrong theatre and was being regaled with a version of Carry On Cleo. The well-worn cliches are here: female attendants clad in metallic bras and diaphanous trousers and Roman soldiers who salute each other in that clenched-fist-across-the-chest way beloved of Hollywood directors (there s even a choreographed sequence involving this gesture).
And the noise. Shakespeare paints a picture of an Egypt where music hovers in the air. In this production, the Egyptian guard hears music in the ground: we all certainly did (it was probably heard at Waterloo station), but I m sure the bard s intention was not something sounding like a German industrial rock band. There were a couple of whole scenes where, literally, not a single word could be heard (though, on the way out, one of my fellow theatre-goers bravely insisted, “No, I did hear the words occasionally.”).
Into this sorry mess step two bona fide stars with impeccable Shakespeare credentials. Cleopatra is a part that was surely made for Helen Mirren and, indeed, in patches she shows what she is capable of, particularly in the scenes after the death of Antony.
As for Alan Rickman. There are probably thousands of middle-aged Englishmen who dream of being in close proximity to Ms Mirren, but Rickman doesn t appear to be one of them. This play can only work when the two lovers convince; this Antony shows more emotion when he learns that Enobarbus has deserted to the Romans than in any of his scenes with Cleopatra. Far from being the “doting mallard of the play”, he is a dead duck long before his demise. The last time the National Theatre staged this play, Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins gave a superb demonstration of a pair of middle-aged lovers; if only these two could have learned from that.
All is not completely lost though. Finbar Lynch is a wonderful Enobarbus, sly and cynical, an Irish chancer. And the highlight for me was Samuel West s Octavius, a buttoned-up, repressed public schoolboy whose mastery of realpolitik triumphs over the more earthy Antony.
For these saving graces, in a production of Antony and Cleopatra, there s something seriously wrong when Enobarbus and Octavius get a bigger cheer than the two leading characters. A right carry on indeed.