Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Reviewer: James Garrington
For a number of years at the end of the 18th century, part of an island in the Caribbean was in turmoil. The enslaved population of the island were rebelling against the plantation owners, and the French government, who then controlled the island, sent a force to crack down on the uprising. What followed was bloodshed lasting three years, resulting in the independent state of Haiti being created.
This is the setting for this production of Antony and Cleopatra. The RSC are well known for presenting Shakespeare in different historical and geographical settings, and this is the latest play to undergo that treatment. This production is a co-production between the RSC and The Public Theater, New York and GableStage, Miami, and it will be heading across the Atlantic after its run finishes in Stratford.
Director Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken about how he wanted this to be a ‘colour-conscious’ interpretation, and has tried to cast and directed it accordingly, though it’s not entirely clear whether this has the full impact that he was hoping for – in Stratford, at least. The Egyptians (or islanders in this interpretation) are mostly Black and speak with Caribbean accents, that is true. They wear white clothing where the Romans (French) wear uniform. The problem is, that the impact is diluted somewhat because the RSC have traditionally set their productions in different places, and will costume them to suit; and because colour-blind casting is, these days – quite rightly – the norm in Stratford, seeing a white Antony with a Black Cleopatra has nowhere near the impact that it would have done a few years ago. Add to that a set that is more Roman than Caribbean, and, apart from some Calypso music and a somewhat gratuitous voodoo witch doctor, there is not really much Haiti about.
Having said all of that, the interpretation of the characters and dialogue is superb. Even in a tragedy such as this, there is much comedy to be found and McCraney has done a good job in bringing it out. The light and shade that is introduced heightens the impact of the dramatic moments when they occur in this interpretation, which has a very modern feel to it.
Jonathan Cake inhabits the rôle of Antony as a sort of playboy in the first instance, full of confidence and self-belief and with a well-pitched passion for Cleopatra. He moves quite convincingly from confidence to despair as his world splits apart around him, though it seems a little as though he is more at home in the larger-than-life, outgoing person of the earlier Antony. Opposite is Joaquina Kalulango as Cleopatra, a woman clearly in love with her Antony. She flips from teasingly flirtatious to angry, but an anger that is short-lived, as Antony does things to irritate her. The chemistry the pair have comes across clearly; in many ways it would be easy to believe they were an old married couple. Kalukango plumbs the depths of her emotions at the climax of the play, culminating in her death scene where, at this performance at least, there was a palpable stillness and focus from the audience.
As always at the RSC, though, this is an ensemble production with many fine performances. Chukwudi Iwuji (Enobarbus) comes across very well as a narrator character, ensuring that the audience knew exactly what was happening and where – including, from time to time, some stage directions where they help to set the scene. Also worthy of mention is Chivas Michael, wonderfully camp as Eros and with a beautiful singing voice.
This is not a traditional Antony and Cleopatra, and some purists might balk at the edit; but it is precisely that edit, paired with the direction, that make it what it is: contemporary and accessible.
Runs until 30th November 2013