ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1

FRESHER THAN EVER,  AN ANCIENT LOVE UNDER THE SKY

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Eve Best is an irresistible Cleopatra for today: no slinky seductive exoticism but a fresh, joyful, larky sensuality as well-expressed in warlike cloak and breeches as in a nightgown, royal robes or – at one stage – just a sheet as she searches for an Antony who has deserted her bed when – she snorts with irritation – “A Roman thought hath struck him”. A fierily physical performer, Best gives full rein to the Queen’s hysterical jealous rages (never has a messenger been so comprehensively beaten up by a woman) but defuses even her greatest griefs and rages with self-aware jokes right to the edge of death. Even when rudely silencing the rather beautifully melodious singing eunuch (Obioma Ugoala) she mocks her own mood. Touching, too, is the relationship with her handmaids Charmian and Iris: easy, affectionate, joshing. Charmian’s “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself!” evokes a habitual, unrebuked intimacy.

 
Indeed the whole of the Egyptian court, fanned with hanging carpets in the sparsely set, free-moving visual language of the Globe’s great stage, looks considerably more fun than the Roman senate. Here the rest of the triumvirate – an unhappy sober-suited coalition – discuss Pompey’s maritime threat and Mediterranean power politics. For in order for Shakespeare’s play to work well, we must believe that Antony is torn between his destiny as soldier and statesman and a mid-life love affair which made him willing to “give a kingdom for a mirth”. We have to see how a tough man’s man, whose campaigning stamina and hardships were legendary, could be caught by the “serpent of old Nile” and make disastrous military decisions. And how all the same his other nature could draw him back to embrace Roman duty and let Cleopatra down by marrying Caesar’s “holy, cold and still” sister.

 
Some Antonys fail at this, either playing too much the lover, or trying for the kind of preternatural , soaring, godlike nobility described in Cleopatra’s extraordinary late encomium in the Monument scene. Clive Wood does not fail: he creates a chunky, passionate, troubled man whose sweetness is always at war with a habit of ruthlessness. Against him is set Jolyon Coy’s Octavius Caesar: prim, puritanical, the parting of his schoolboy haircut straight, afflicted by no visible affections except for his sister. When Antony returns to Rome, his bright purple jacket contrasts nicely with Caesar’s sober-suited court.

 
So the emotional line of this broad tragedy – pretty well untrimmed at three hours – hangs finely on those three performances, and is studded with other treats. Phil Daniels’ Enobarbus – entrusted with some of the most famous poetic lines – will not be everyone’s favourite but I like the way he speaks them , without pretension, as if he had just made them up. The choreographed dancing exuberance of the Egyptians set against the stamping march of Rome underlines the difference even when both share the stage. When war breaks out in earnest a great tattered map of the Mediterranean countries falls from above and men with banners whirl aloft around one another on ropes.

 

The great golden-winged tragedy unfolds in the monument ,the asp strikes: silence and applause from thatch to groundlings confirm that necessary and ancient sense that we have been through something big, together.

 
box office 020 7401 9919 to 24 August

rating   four 4 Meece Rating

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