Antony and Cleopatra: The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – theatre review

Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare 

Directed by Tarell Alvin-McCraney

The Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford upon Avon

World leader dies after being bitten by snake in Stratford upon Avon and Louder Than War was there to witness it.

The latest offering in Stratford upon Avon is a joint production between the RSC, The Public Theater in New York and Gable Stage in Miami and enjoys cast representation from both sides of the Atlantic. American director Tarell Alvin-McCraney has certainly pushed the boundaries with this stripped down production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. In doing so, he has certainly divided the opinions of critics – one of the main reasons his decision to relocate the action from Ancient Egypt and Rome to an 18th Century Haiti on the brink of revolution.

In some respects this is an inspired and thought-provoking move as the theme of oppression and embryonic revolt against a hated imperial force is surely common to both settings. The splash pool at the rear of the stage is regularly employed to good effect to remind us of the importance to the drama of the sea – regardless of setting. The RSC is certainly delivering on its mission to push the boundaries by presenting challenging productions and this production is never less than thought provoking.

Joaquina Kalukango, part of the US contingent, delivers an impressive debut for the RSC as a feisty Cleopatra, in love with but never controlled by Mark Antony. The chemistry between Kalukango’s Cleopatra and Jonathon Cake’s Antony is most convincing when the issue of power is relevant and we are never quite sure how the couple would fare if they were not quite so important. Cake certainly fills the stage with his massive frame and lends a boorish yet amiable air to the role which contrasts perfectly with Samuel Collings as Octavius Caesar, whose authoritarian disdain transfers from imperial Rome to Haiti seamlessly.

Chukwudi Iwuji delivers a great performance as Enobarbus who also doubles in a curious manner as a narrator between scenes. Another feature of the stripped-down approach sees the supporting cast take more than one role and Chivas Michael is excellent as Mardian, as a Soothsayer and as Eros, delivering an outstanding vocal performance too. There are some excellent dance routines and the scene where peace is made with Pompey is as good a piece of theatre as you will see this year.

Behind all of the imperial shenanigans, however, it’s important to remember that this is essentially a tragic love story culminating in the suicide of the main characters. It’s in the later scenes that possibly the ambition shown by this adaptation interferes with the flow of the narrative and leaves you less sure of why the two main characters act as they do. Given the setting it’s not entirely unexpected that Enobarbus should appear for the final scene in voodoo regalia while the two lovers are reunited in death and in the splash pool.

Antony and Cleopatra runs at The Swan Theatre RSC until November 30th before heading to New York and Miami.


See the RSC website for more details.

For more of Dave Jennings’s Louder Than War writing visit his archive here

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