It is a mid-spring day, making a wander through the middle of Stratford-on-Avon unexpectedly sunlit. We trace the river to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, whose interior and staging dazzle even before Act 1 begins. And before it does, the score erupts: exultant, exotic, epic and brass-burnished. Laura Mvula's name was the first thing that drew me here, and her overture is as ear-catching as the Anubis-headed dancers are eye-catching. Cleopatra was queen of the spectacle:
...she did lie
In her pavilion - cloth of gold, of tissue -
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.
As the second draw, Iqbal Khan's directorship of Antony & Cleopatra play promises a bold, intelligent iteration of the work; lastly being the language, wisdom and dramatic impulse of a certain W. Shakespeare, here in his hometown, in which his name adorns B&Bs, buses and curry houses. I had concerns that a history play might lack the absorbingly tragic arc of a Macbeth or that its factuality might brush up against Khan's innovations/flourishes. My fears are waived away by stunning performances from the leads, spectacle and fanfare - thought in retrospect, I wonder at the weight this piece could have had.
Josette Simon has commanding presence. She plays a monarch, semi-divine. There is as much caprice as there is imperiousness in this versatile, energetic reading - though the text leaves her with more of the former. Her manipulation and jealousy are familiar from farce and sitcom:
I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick...
...and Simon draws the greater comic impact from these moments for her godlike carriage and the contained hurricane of her diction. That voice that terrifies servants and enchants emperors comes from a complex and magnetic Cleopatra. The performance is in period dress, which fortunately doesn't preclude Simon's numerous costume changes - from the robes of the bedchamber to the breastplate of battle, to her final Pharaonic accoutrements via an Empress' new clothes.
Antony Byrne's Mark Antony is convincingly earthy, showing how a robust tactician's clear leadership abilities can be subsumed in an Epicurean lifestyle.
There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.
"This dotage of our general's" is attributed to the all-consuming distraction of his mistress, but the pride and compartmentalisation (ensconced in Egypt's pleasures, waving away messengers from Rome), that Byrne highlights, show how structurally fallible this "pillar of the world" always was. He snaps out of this reverie into a touching meditation on hearing of his wife's Fulvia's death ("There's a great spirit gone!").
Iqbal Khan returns to the RSC to direct, following a lauded Othello and his Delhi-set Much Ado. Here, Khan brings out plenty of levity, which is winning in Simon's huge jealousy on hearing Antony's marriage to Octavia ("Bring me word how tall she is.") and the lairiness of the captains' banquet. An otherwise stellar Enobarbus (Andrew Woodall) is endowed with an inessential Cockney accent though, and Antony's botched maiming of himself diminishes the tragedy somewhat in this production. Otherwise, the action is clearly drawn, drama well-handled, and the production is gimmick-free. Robert Innes Hopkins' staging is festooned with gold and colour, and when the pillars of Rome descend, they seem more massive than is possible in the RST. Rising and falling thrones and plinths show the delicate balances of power in this slice of history.
Subtleties of sound design are also to be applauded: the leaden reverb that follows the player's cadences in sober Rome give that location a totally different character to balmy Egypt. Mvula's score is wonderful, conveying majesty and impulsiveness - her glittering, synth-laden introduction to the Roman setting is a great, non-intuitive choice, and I can imagine no more elegant drinking song than the one she places in the sozzled captains' mouths.
Playing until early September, the play moves to London's Barbican for December and January - if you can't reach either, on the 24th of May it will be broadcast live to cinemas including Oxford's own Phoenix Picturehouse.