Antony and Cleopatra

Tue 8th – Sat 12th November 2011

reviews

Richard Hill

at 10:38 on 9th Nov 2011

1agrees

1disagrees

Before writing this review I looked back at the OTR’s blurb and it’s feature blog and now I lament the high expectations of a ‘love affair with balls’ calling Cleopatra’s characterisation as a surviving starlet of the silver screen as a ‘stroke of genius’. Set, pacing, scanning and invariably an interpretation unrealised took the wind out of Cleo's sails.

The set looked well thought out from the off. A stage strewn with throw pillows, a chaise-longue, dresser, Egyptian cat statue, interesting light columns, poster strewn flats and flapper jewellery capture the Weimar silver screen feel well. The use of pre-recorded film seemed an interesting take too. However, the impressive look of the set was quickly diminished by the cumbersome action of switching flats from black and white to colour ones for the movement from Egypt to Rome which really slowed the pace of the play. In a theatre like the O'Reilly which has such potential for lighting, it seems a shame that a smoother, quicker option wasn't explored. Furthermore, while the use of film tantalises in theory, in practice there were some technical difficulties which ideally should have been sorted in tech or dress. The long pauses waiting for the projector and forced improvisation from Cleopatra for the final flick took away the magic.

Antony and Cleopatra is a heavily versified play. As such, it is often difficult to separate stress of meaning from metrical stress and the actors fell foul last night of emphasising odd words in the poetry which obscured meaning. The pace of delivery was also frequently laboured with dramatic pause and unnatural rise and fall in tone. In fact a combination of these two factors as well as a strange mewing style of delivery from Katy Ebner-Landy’s Eros that made you feel like you were at a poetry recital made the death scene between the character and Anthony oddly farcical and unnatural. Physicality was also strangely unnatural with distracting fawning over hair being a favourite 'unconscious' movement. Whilst this over theatricality may be playing into a style which nods toward the more exaggerated physicality of silver screen acting, my comment still stands if this failed to come across fully on stage. Indeed the best acting appeared to be the pre-recorded footage used throughout. The result was a sense of a dragged out performance that should not have happened considering the cuts.

In fact it may have been the stereotypes that this genre throws up that are the downfall of the production. Antony, often called 'brave' not ironically, is rendered a Weimar fop and combined with an over gesticulated style from an undeniably passionate Michael Crowe is stripped of nobility. Catherine Haines' Cleopatra was also somewhat thwarted by the characterisation as a diva, transforming her most tragic scenes into strangely insincere tantrums. A shame considering the actress' ability. Furthermore, the attempt to capture the sense of cabaret in the second half resulted in an awkward orgiastic scene (complete with 'Ich bin ein Vamp' musical interlude sung admirably, but inaccurately beyond the point of cabaret style, by Fen Greatley) which was at odds with the jaunty and so far only suggested sexuality of the previous scenes. There were, however, other admirable performances. Julie Hartley as Alexas gave a committed camp and Dali-esque performance free from versified lilt. Fen Greatley as Mardian and Sophie Ablett as Iras also had refreshing moments and Kate MacArthur played a nicely innocent Octavia.

There were those last night that gave a standing ovation and indeed it may be that I am being harsh. Any cast and crew of course is to be commended for putting on such a difficult play. But with such a wealth of student theatre in Oxford, I really felt that Antony and Cleopatra was lagging. The passion of the whole cast was undeniable, but thwarted by an interpretation and some distracting stylistic problems that could have been dealt with in direction.

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John Warriner

at 16:08 on 9th Nov 2011

1agrees

0disagrees

The unique selling point of Tara Isabella Burton’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was potentially a clever one. The choice of a flapper-era vibe brings to the stage an age of film, of celebrity, of exposure. This angle seems appropriate to a play about two political celebrities, the Roman general Mark Antony and his Egyptian inamorata, Queen Cleopatra. The program advertises this theme with a quotation from the play: ‘all this – in the public view?’ I went to the play expecting to see a production then that understood the play, and was able to enliven it sufficiently with this kind of directorial licence.

However, the vaguely noir-ish staging and costumes increasingly seemed only to be employed for the sake of kitschness. The visuals of the play are pleasing, but the performance lacked the intelligent staging, that extra level of engagement with the period setting, that would promote this play to anything more than mere display.

It is commendable to attempt such a long and difficult play, though the director really did the production no favours by refusing to cut any of it. The production ran on for over three hours, leaving much of the audience at best, fidgety, at worst, silently pleading under their breaths that the eponymous protagonists get on with it and top themselves so we could all go home.

The acting too sadly just failed to secure attention, perhaps because the performers, particularly those on the ostensible sidelines, didn’t seem engaged themselves. Mardian (Fen Greatley), reclining on a sofa five feet from the action, doesn’t blink an eye when Cleopatra lunges at a messenger with an unsheathed knife. Caesar (Rob Snellgrove) and Lepidus (William Bond) stand with their hands in their pockets during the rather inventive opening movie clip. Other performance habits irritated. Charmian’s (Claire Rammelkamp) constant fiddling with Cleopatra’s hair, her stroking of her face, her draping of herself over her mistress during key scenes not only diminished the interest of her own character to that of a lapdog, but actually obscured Cleopatra from vision and distracted audience attention. By the end it was genuinely annoying to see Catherine Haines, who was, when given some room, absolutely engaging as the Queen of the Nile, constantly crowded. Generally everyone involved seemed to share a pathological obsession for the invasion of personal space, for holding hands, slapping backs and locking arms. It all smacks not just of unimaginative direction, but of a lack of confidence on the part of the actors. Worst of all, the repetition detracts from the moments when this kind of interaction is used to great effect, such as the scene in which Antony and Caesar share an awkward handshake which is balances both tension and humour to brilliant effect.

Famous lines were fumbled, entire speeches addressed to the wrong person, and Eros (Katy Ebner-Landy), often (as in this production) staged as a female rather than male companion to Antony, was a site of particular grammatical confusion – the gender of pronouns was mixed up to the point that one unfamiliar with the play would be left utterly confused. Emphasis was often erratic, always shouting. Snellgrove particularly was guilty of impromptu angry outbursts – a mid-sentence exclamation of the single word ‘Cyprus!’ amongst a list of Cleopatra’s domains even raised the odd laugh in its silly incongruity.

All due leniency offered considering the fact of its being the opening light, the production was regretfully compromised by a number of technical blunders. The pointless redressing of scenery with differently coloured posters (nominally to mark the transition from Egypt to Rome, which could have been more creatively marked by the use of more film footage) meant that scene changes took up to a minute to execute, occurring about a dozen times in the play, often with a great deal of visible clumsiness. Lighting cues were off – Enobarbus ended up placing a hat over his face to ready himself for the scene when the lights were already fully up. Most bizarrely, the concluding montages of film footage are either delayed (noticeably, despite Haines’ quick-thinking improvisation) or are endstopped by a fleeting snatch of an iTunes window. It is moments like these that go a long way towards cheapening a production into which so much hard work has evidently been poured. It’s just not professional.

There was a lot to like about the production. The second half was much better than the first, Greatley’s singing was accomplished, the whole thing looked great, and Michael Crowe and Chris Johnson didn’t do a bad job at all with Antony and his turncoat general Enobarbus. The whole operation will undoubtedly tighten up over the course of the run, but I can’t help but feel that the whole production is flawed by a real lack of directorial flair that fails to capitalise on a promising initial idea.

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