The problem with Shakespeare’s Roman plays is that since every director wants to put their own stamp on a production, wants to say something new and different, often the very specifically Roman history and politics of these plays ends up being transferred to another time. Unfortunately, this was the trap that I felt this production fell in to. I know it’s all very boring and purist to do it all historical, but there is a reason that a lot of productions keep the Roman plays Roman and that is because this is what makes the most sense.
In Burton’s production, Egypt becomes the Germany of the Weimar republic, all in black and white, with Rome – its generals bedecked rather jauntily with sparkly plastic jewel-encrusted military jackets – as a Technicolor America. I will be honest, though, I only got this once the director had explained it to me, so I found it a little distracting trying to work out which country Egypt was meant to represent and which country Rome was. It looks wonderful, and the production is full of stylish visual touches, but it just didn’t make sense to me that even the Romans who throughout the play talk in the language of measurement and control, the Egyptians are the ones associated with the fascists. Of course, Rome has to be America, because in the modern history this is mapped on to, America wins the war, but it doesn’t fit quite right with the events of the original setting.
That is not to say that I did not like this production. I liked it very much and there were lots of wonderful touches that made it very lively and funny. Enobarbus’ iconic speech ‘The barge she sat in like a burnished throne…’ etc. was played as a voiceover on a black and white film showing Cleopatra and Anthony frolicking around that was really very effective, and in fact the entire Egyptian court were wonderful and the production is entirely worth seeing for Catherine Haines’ Cleopatra who perfectly accomplishes combining Cleopatra’s infinite variety and her capricious game-playing with her power and presence. The Egyptians all lie around on the floor stroking one another, while the Romans sit apart on hard chairs talking stiffly. The contrast is beautifully made, but then again this transposition in time caused me problems. Why would the decadent Egypt be aligned with a black-and-white bleak fascist state?
But then, this does open up other possibilities that keeping it within the correct (sorry, that’s just the way it is) historical setting would shut down. By transposing it through time, Burton has shifted the power relationship between Anthony and Caesar. Instead of hard-edged, calm and in control, Rob Snellgrove’s Caesar is nervous, almost squirrelly, totally intimidated by the suave and manipulative Anthony. It’s very interesting and it’s very different. The only problem is, since the text is (quite rightly) left exactly how it is with all the names and the historical references so we know that Caesar is the man who will eventually become Augustus ruler of the known world. It was interesting and it was powerful, but I just couldn’t buy into this portrayal of Octavian, I just couldn’t believe in this Caesar as the man who would eventually rule the world. Perhaps he was modelled on some real historical character, and perhaps it is because of my ignorance that I am missing the nuance, but for me, it didn’t quite sit right.
But, having said all of this, this is definitely a production worth seeing. So, I didn’t agree with the way it was done, and I didn’t really get the change in historical setting, but at least it was something a bit different, a bit provocative. I could have gone to another production with them all wearing togas, and I would probably have liked it more, but then I wouldn’t have had any kind of reaction to it like this. Much better to see a production that makes you think, even if it makes you disagree. This is an Anthony and Cleopatra that is something that is a bit different, and all of the acting in it is excellent. It’s well worth seeing; the cast are really great and it’s well-paced and full of engaging extras with the film clips and some music. Who knows, maybe you’ll get it and it is my shocking lack of historical knowledge that stopped me loving this production, but at least this one gives one something to really get into and discuss, and hey – you don’t all have to read about how lovely and authentic I thought those who did the costumes had made the togas.