Richard Lutz takes his pew for the classic Shakespeare tragedy about love and lust when youth leaves the stage.
You can expect passion and lust when actor Antony Byrne and Josette Simon (above) take on the title roles. Her capricious delivery – sometimes minx, sometimes imperious queen – is overwhelming. Byrne plays the Roman soldier as a military man down to his golden shinguards who is poleaxed by love.
The tangle of their aging hearts is intriguing, physical and, ultimately, tormented. But take away their pairing on the RSC stage at Stratford, and the play falls flat on its Jacobean face. It is part museum piece, part history lesson and there are longeurs a-plenty as a modern audience has to plough through copious pages of script as supporting characters explain long forgotten battles and conspiracies. At almost 3 hours, it was a lot of Shakespere for a night out.
Major themes, though, do emerge. This is a mid-career play by Shakespeare, a man who always enjoyed a duality (or two): So, it’s a tale about youth and age, Rome and Egypt, male and female, and, ultimately, love and war. It’s a major and demanding work.
But Josette Simon just about saves the day. Cleopatra is described nicely as “a lass unparalleled,” and Simon’s queen of the Egyptians can turn from sex kitten to regal leader to teenage impassioned lover within seconds. Hers is a performance that will not easily be forgotten. Unparalleled, some might say to nick that neat line from the play.
Direction by Iqbal Khan allows the humanness of the two lovers to blossom amid the monumental set design. But he’s made one or two dubious decisions; one is having the sea battle of Actium carried out with model boats. Ouch. And a second is the failure to prune back the production by a good ten minutes, possibly more.
Music by singer Laura Mvula adds a spicey backdrop and there is strong supporting work from Amber James as Cleopatra’s mischievous servant Carmian plus an ambitious but still immature Octavius, portrayed by actor Ben Allen as an aspiring emperor who can barely contain a childlike rage in these fervid times.
Until 7th September. Tickets: rsc.org.uk