By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic
‘Antony and Cleopatra’
UMS presents the Royal Shakespeare Company at Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. Performed in repertory through Nov. 11. Tickets: $30-$150. For information: 734-764-2538 or http://www.ums.org.
From the moment you enter the Power Center and see the setting for “Antony and Cleopatra,” you know instantly you are in Royal Shakespeare Company territory: a simple slab floor of interesting wood; a flat backdrop with an intriguing abstract texture that spreads over it in gobbets; and two sets of musical instruments, placed unobtrusively but without shyness in the corners. There it is; make the most of it. We are in a theatrical space; we are not representing anything.
There is a great deal of humor in this production. It slowly blackens as the play progresses. In the end, it is a surprisingly comedic tragedy about loss: loss of trust, loss of love, loss of honor, loss of fidelity, loss of royalty, loss of life. The lives in this production corrode from the inside out, with one exception.
Ken Bones as Enobarbus almost steals the show – no mean feat when Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter are the near-victims of his attempted subornation. His voice is his burglar tool, dark, harsh and rich. The words Shakespeare gives him are the stuff of cold, ground-floor reality. He enunciates every word with piercing, bitter clarity. The core of his character is cynicism, and that is exactly his undoing. He gives Enobarbus an interesting touch: He is as much in love with Cleopatra as any other man in the play. He just manages to keep the lid on it most of the time, but it spills out when he describes her on her barge. He botches his cynicism, following it to his death when he should have remained loyal.
Patrick Stewart’s Antony is a man enamored, infatuated, impassioned – and quite a genial fellow, to boot. For all his roarings about honor, dignity is not important to this Antony. That’s good, because he loses it utterly. He adopts a heroic stance upon deciding, seemingly out of whole cloth, that Cleopatra has betrayed him. But he wants to believe it more than he really does, and the black humor of it comes fully home to roost as he lies dying, having botched falling on his sword, having botched his death when he should have stayed alive.
Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra is equally enamored, equally impassioned and absolutely not a nice person at all. She is a cat, but Antony is her match. With the hapless messenger who comes into her claws three or four times, she shows what she does to mice. Her sexuality is her pride; she uses it unflinchingly and manipulatively on everything male in range. Out of her pride comes something none of the men achieve, the sole example of the only true achievement allowed in the world of this production: greatness in death. She is all but transformed into a goddess as she dies, and the final image is of Roman soldiery on their knees, dutifully tending to her.