Review: Antony and Cleopatra
Shakespeare's lovers get an effectively comic makeover
Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Love actually: Eve Best and Clive Wood in the leading roles
With Clive Wood and Eve Best as two of the ancient world's most passionate lovers, Jonathan Munby's production reclassifies Shakespeare's tragedy as a fizzing comedy. Which is not to say that the business of Antony's army joining forces with Cleopatra's navy to fight his fellow Romans is not an act of deadly seriousness. Nor that their deaths are not as devastating to watch as they should be (especially Antony's, witnessed by the love of his life).
But when the sparring couple are together, what they transmit is not so much mutual adoration as relief that each has found in the other an equal. And we are not just talking about an equality in status, but in wit and attitude. In fact, this version of possibly the greatest romance in the classical canon has more in common with the cynicism and sarcasm of Elyot and Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives than with love-struck victims of their own emotions. These two would never let such self-indulgences get the better of them.
Munby also injects some beautifully judged flourishes that serve to illustrate the thoughts of Shakespeare's lovers. When Wood's macho Antony and Jolyon Coy's uptight Caesar calm their tense stand-off with the agreement that Antony will wed Caesar's frosty sister Octavia, she silently glides though the scene like a thought in the mind rather than a character on the stage. And when news reaches Antony that Enobarbus has deserted him, the old friends face each other, though only in Antony's imagination.
The key to this production lies in undermining the po-faced earnestness that usually characterises dramas about great love. Best's Cleopatra even kisses a member of the audience as if to prove that she can't be doing with all that lovey dovey nonsense.
And although the most painful to watch moment is still Antony's self-inflicted death-wound, even here there is unexpected humour as the gash fails to gush. Wood's gruff Antony, smiter of countless men, rolls his eyes with exasperation at his temporary immortality. And he lets out a loud ironic laugh when he realises that his suicide is a mistake because, despite the report, Cleopatra is not dead. Best, meanwhile, takes quite a chance by rejecting outward displays of mourning. There is physical bravery also. Her ankle is strapped because of an injury that makes this queen of the Nile hobble across the Globe's stage rather than imperiously glide.
Cleopatra even kisses a member of the audience
But her grief for Antony is characterised more by a quiet smile than outward mourning for someone who, like her, lived life on his own terms.