Anthony & Cleopatra – National Theatre At Home

Adapted from the works of William Shakespeare

Directed by Simon Godwin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As part of their continuing ‘At Home’ series, providing theatre to the masses, The National Theatre serves disturbing illusions of love and war, set against the surging dynasty of Octavian Caesar. This surface of grand ideas, complex yet gorgeous lyrical language conceals a lacerating political drama where the tones of integrity, loyalty and devotion fall at the corruptive hands of obsession. An ancient love story, which declines to limit itself to a singular genre, Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra (loosely) accounts the relationship between the Ruler of Plotemic Egypt and occupant of Mark Anthony’s thoughts. Chartering their relationship from infatuation, dogmatic declarations and eventually, succumbing to fixation.

The epitome of a conqueror, demonstrating equal control of spoken word and physicality in his performance, Ralph Fiennes is every bit the Anthony one would expect. At first bold, seemingly uncomfortable in his baggy, Oriental trousers, is thriving for a return to action, a purpose. His bolstering against the continuation of Caesar’s inevitable rise oozes machismo in the manner in which Fiennes lifts, grapples, and grinds against the men, dominating them. Yet, behind this bravado, Fiennes measure of the performance is not in the brash piss-taker, but a distraught man who faces desolation at the hands of a younger foe. Though initially capturing the achievements of a man of war, and intimately twisted chemistry with Okonedo, it is this fall into the abyss where Fiennes ensnares us. What is Anthony though, without a resolute, commendable force to command his affections? What is Anthony without Cleopatra?

Poignant, playful, and persuasive, Sophie Okonedo is the visceral power behind the production. Mercurial, almost flippant in eruptions of sensation, Okonedo’s Cleopatra is less a temptress than a tigress, a calculating beast which belays an underestimated strength. She is, despite what others possibly interpret, not solely a figurehead of femininity but the deconstruction of gender, the smashing of normality which is thrust upon her in Shakespeare’s language. Her embodiment of Egypt, to be as ‘abundant, leaky and changeable as the Nile’ may characterise the sentiment of the country as the feminine, and Rome as the masculine, but Okonedo carries a unique approach which transcends the obvious. Both cities conduct themselves like the other, and Godwin’s manipulation of pretence allows for Okonedo to run with the part. She is a breathing paradox; petulant yet controlled, arrogant but all the while self-conscious.

As the wistful toying of words plays out across Alexandria, Egypt, the delivery of severity contrasts Rome. Notably, the productions key line deliveries are not solely on the parts of Fiennes or Okonedo, but in the supporting cast, chiefly from Tim McMullan playing Enobarbus, Anthony’s loyalist confidant. McMullan is controlled, jesting on occasion, bouncing to-and-fro off of Fiennes in perfect pacing where Godwin’s direction marries surreptitiously with Shakespeare’s language. Anthony & Cleopatra is by far at its most successful when Fiennes or Okonedo have the toys of supporting characters to play with, to manipulate. Allowing for dynamics in culture, as the men of Rome conduct themselves characteristically different to Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers (Charmian & Iras) who’s reverence for their ruler carry in a softer, but by no means less significant voice than the sycophants of Anthony or Caesar. 

Godwin maintains this allegory, traditional in adaptations to decipher the differences between Rome and Egypt, allowing for subtle (or blunt) commentary. It’s seen in the performances, the costuming, but more often than not, and no different here, the staging and set design illustrate the differences in the clean, opulent Egypt against the streaming, technology-infused war-rooms of Rome. Catapulting the modernist political drama aesthetic, Hildegard Bechtler captures the intensity, and arguable futility, of men playing at war. The semi-circular staging juts into the audience allows for intimacy, and though the revolving stage extends the already steep running time, the ingenuity behind the construct is unmistakable. Particularly when coupled with Christopher Shutt’s sound design as the ‘submarine’ emerges from the depths of the stage.

This length takes a substantial toll on the production’s rhythm, which is paramount to forgiving Shakespeare’s dashed conclusion. There are ample nap opportunities for the weary, as the difficulty in translating forty-two scenes into a single production. It impedes, where regardless of potency of poetic language, audience’s will be drawn away from the moment, particularly with supporting cast who simply cannot convey the delivery required. Shakespeare’s work is notorious for words ring hollow when spoken without conviction. Recitations begin to develop where performers are merely going through the motions, as opposed to breathing the language, tying it into the character.

Anthony & Cleopatra is a tragedy. It is also notable for its comedy, its loose historical context, its romance and political commentary. It is by no means a single genre, and by no means speaking with one voice. Godwin’s production, his intention, to demonstrate the corrosive capabilities of obsession is where The National Theatre’s recent performance excels, lead by two of the country’s prominent theatrical performers. It may feel like a slog in parts, but similar to Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra, this is theatre of “infinite variety”, a lesson we must not neglect in these times.

Anthony & Cleopatra is available to stream from Youtube until May 14th at 7:00pm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWc6_aCTqI0

Information, and vitallly donations, can be provided from The National Theatre website: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-antony-and-cleopatra

All images & video are the property of The National Theatre

SIX – Festival Theatre

Written by Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss

Directed by Lucy Moss & Jamie Armitage

History is widely written by men; no wonder we didn’t pay attention in school. Unless you have had the misfortune of a beheading or being pushed into a nunnery by your gout-suffering brut of a husband, Six is the concert musical sensation which rules the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, stormed the Westend and conquered Broadway. They may have been divorced, beheaded and died, but on stage, they thrive. 

A testament to the colossal power of a lucrative, stimulating idea and the influence of the Festival Fringe, Six descends on high to mingle with the common folk. This regal return for the wives of Henry VIII reminds us all that behind the man were six efficacious, prominent and notably individual women. All of whom deserve a damn-site more praise and attention than their historical footnotes.

Of course, the real question is: “who’s your favourite”? Which Queen deserves to lead the band, own her crown and step out from Henry’s broad shadow? Should it be the seductress Anne Boleyn; the woman who would give birth to Queen Elizabeth I? Or maybe, the Spanish mother, the O.G, Catherine of Aragon is the royal of your heart? Or could it just be those other women, the ones whose names sit on the edge of your tongue? Six has a primary concert premise, a seventy-five-minute run-time, but vivacious talent, legions of fans and a cast of undeniably skilled women befitting their crowns.  

So, roll up your Green Sleeves lords and ladies of the court, it’s a right royal rumble, for now at least. From the scintillating imagination of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six pounds with a heart of musical theatre, but with the blood and teeth of a gig. Both Marlow and Mosses’ lyrical ability gifts the audience with ten unique numbers full of a rainbow of hilarity, affection, cattiness and fury. The vocals of the team, consisting of Lauren Drew, Maddison Bulleyment, Lauren Byrne, Shekinah McFarlane, Jodie Steele and Athena Collins has an intense, diverse range of tone, purpose and delivery.

There are raps, power ballads and break-out those glowsticks folks – we have club-house beats. It is though, Steele’s number ‘All You Wanna Do’ which has a lyricism and choreography that delves swiftly from raunchy into depraved, tormenting and a piece of artistic expression which holds context across centuries. In reverse, Haus of Holbein and Get Down shatter the glass ceiling, shake the Festival theatre and propel the audience into bursts of energetic movements, courtesy of McFarlane who channels enviable energy, a lust for life and pizazz which carries us into the shows second half.

In transitioning to the stage, minor adjustments have been taken to provide a sense of theatricality for the touring production. For those familiar with the Queen’s Fringe performances, the changes make a welcome addition, though in moments the crowns need a little polish. Chiefly, communicating pathos to the audience, emotion ramped up from a natural state, where the lyrics and vocals are equally capable of conveying the destructive abuse of histories obsession with sexualising these women.

Blasting concerns of the production occupying the venue space, Emma Bailey’s set design maintains its structure from previous years – evidence to how well-thought the original construction was. Playfully, the lighting design transforms concert dynamics, spotlights make the obvious appearance, but it is the neon, the bulb-lights and manner in which Tim Deiling’s lighting design knows precisely what temperature and shading will contrast, or indeed complement each number which heightens the show.

Before we go, before you even think we’re done; let’s mention Gabriella Slade’s costumes. Sharp stitching houses the essence of characterisation in glorious shades of attitude. It wouldn’t be a show about Queen’s, had their gowns not slain quite as mercilessly as their husband. Nor would they be anywhere without their ladies in waiting; Arlene McNaught, Vanessa Domonique, Frankie South and Kat Bax on instrumentals, McNaught also providing musical direction.

Lucy Moss & Toby Marlow have given a voice to the past, a voice which in-turn speaks for the future. Placing these icons of history in the spotlight, Six is more than a concert history lesson, it has a vaster depth than a feminist musical; Six is an example of the trials of passion, a coming together in the name of rejoice, not revenge and vitally, is a show worth losing your head over.

SIX runs at teh Festival theatre until February 9th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/six-the-musical

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The Belle’s Stratagem – The Royal Lyceum

Written by Hannah Cowley

Adaptated and directed by Tony Cowie

Originally conceived in the late seventeen hundreds, Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem is a sublime comedy of manners. Taking every pre- and ill-conceived notion one may have about a woman and giving it a good slap across the chops. Adapted for the Royal Lyceum we are no longer in Drury Lane London, but in New Town Georgian Edinburgh, and all the better for it.

Divided by two primary stories of love, Stratagem has a varied cast of unique players. Our first is of a young well-to-do lassie (Angela Hardie), fallen madly in love with her returning betrothed. His tastes, however, have been spoiled by those most wretched of temptresses: European Women. If she cannot claim his love, she will claim his passionate hatred. Our other tale is that of newly married Lady Touchwood, whose snivelling pathetic husband is terrified of her discovering city life. Stitched together through similar circles, both women become entangled in strategies to open the eyes of the men around them. 

The beauty of Stratagem is found in its humour. An equal split between the onstage talent, and the witty adaptation of Tony Cownie. Any who were lucky enough to view a Lyceum’s previous production Thon Man Moliere know of Cownie’s ability to draw the best from his cast. This production’s comedy is derived from so many layers it’s exceptional: physical, lyrical, cultural and moving from outrageously farcical to incredulously subtle. O’Rourke, McNicoll and Nicola Roy thieving the best lines of the night. It is so accessible due to this. Many see a period comedy, written by and about women at the Lyceum as potentially middle class or too clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth; The Belle’s Stratagem is theatre crafted for everyone.

The entire male cast, particularly Richard Conlon, Grant O’Rourke and Steven McNicoll, play at least one character with a whiff of misogyny to them. Yet, we still roar at their performances. This is a mark of irrefutable skill. An ever-present issue, long outstaying its welcome is both the subject of constant ridicule but still highlighted. Stratagem never slams anything into the audiences’ face, instead, it seeks to entertain, providing insight. Its feminine resistance is represented in all forms and across generations. It’s cutting, subversive, and jovial.

There’s something about the Scottish angle which just works for The Belle’s Stratagem. The multitude of dialects heightens the delivery, particularly from Pauline Knowles and Roy. The decision to localise it is genius, never feeling like a cheap ploy even when references are dropped without subtlety. There are enough for locals, tourists and especially history buffs.

The Lyceum brands itself with; ‘Theatre Made in Edinburgh‘, with good reason. The undeniable savvy of creators in this city is something to boast about. It has been over two hundred years and The Belle’s Stratagem is still relevant. Its indirect commentary on the folly of men and the social placement of woman is still needed. One day productions such as this will no longer be written, for all the right reasons. For now, we have pieces like this to laugh, share and enjoy.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-belles-stratagem-royal-lyceum-theatre-edinburgh/