I went with expectations high to the RSC's Antony and Cleopatra at the Novello Theatre, and I wasn't disappointed. That sounds rather predictable, but this is a play that fails more often than it succeeds. I've seen lots of rather indifferent versions of it, including some by the RSC and one spectacular failure by the National a few years ago when Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman starred. There was a total lack of chemistry between this pair, and Mirren's performance only took off after Antony's death. More recently the Globe showed us a so-so production with Frances Barber and Nicholas Jones. Again Antony was the problem, not Cleopatra. This seems to be a pattern -- I suspect Antony is a much more difficult part than we realise.
Last night's performance, at which I spotted the legendary Peter Brook in the audience, was in a class of its own -- probably the best Antony and Cleopatra that any of us will ever see. Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart had the sexual chemistry of a middle-aged couple enjoying a desperate final fling. Both of them seemed to be a bit hoarse, possibly recovering from colds, but it didn't matter. I knew Walter would be terrific in this role, and the key to her performance comes in the moment where she tears off her black wig and exposes her cropped natural hair. It was a wonderful performance, ranging from skittish eroticism to petulant anger through vulnerability and ending in dignity. But the real revelation was Patrick Stewart as Antony, who gave far and away the best performance I've seen. He made Antony credible as a soldier, a politician, a lover and a self-indulgent old soak. What he managed to convey was the sense of Antony's past glorious career, glimpsed amid his present decline.
Greg Doran isn't exactly under-rated but he doesn't have the high public profile of other theatre directors. For my money he's one of the few directors whose name on the programme guarantees that the show will be worth watching. His style isn't flashy and he doesn't feel the need to turn Shakespeare upside down and shake him to see what falls out. Four years ago he directed a wonderful Much Ado About Nothing in which Harriet Walter was paired with Nicholas Le Prevost. This production is packed with intelligent, detailed little moments which build up the jigsaw of a rather episodic play. The set is spare but the costumes are just right, setting the contrast between Rome and Egypt.
In the rest of the cast I noted a very fine performance as Octavius by John Hopkins, a young actor I hadn't seen before. Octavius is often played as an Nazi gauleiter in the making, cold and unemotional, but Hopkins played him as an awkward, clumsy young man barely in control of his own behaviour and it worked brilliantly. It's a strong cast, including Ken Bones as Enobarbus and James Hayes as Lepidus.