Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra at the Barbican
This year the Royal Shakespeare Company have hosted a Rome season comprising the plays of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. I was lucky enough to be asked to review Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra when they transferred to the Barbican.
Both plays follow on from each other but have a completely different tone. If the heroes of the first one is the noble Brutus, then the heroes of the second play are the childish Anthony and Cleopatra. The two plays have different directors. If Angus Jackson soberly directs the high minded Julius Caesar, then Iqbal Khan positively luxiourates in the excesses of the late Ptolemaic court of Cleopatra.
Julius Caesar sees the return of Caesar to Rome following the death of Pompey in Egypt. The people acclaim for him but the patrician senators do not. A plot is hatched to kill Caesar and save the liberty of Rome. The instigator, Cassius, is played in an emotional frenzy, jumping from suicidal despair to homicidal fanaticism throughout the play.
Where’s my serpent of old Nile?
Anthony and Cleopatra tells the tale of the love between Anthony and Cleopatra set in the end days of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the rise of the Augustan hegemony. It covers much more ground than Julius Caesar, in some ways, and shows a deep character development for Cleopatra.
This perfomance of the play loses something of the colonial exoticism of Egypt. The excesses of Cleopatra’s court are personal and not a Greco-Roman colonial conceit. The plays starts with a party straight out of sixties Chelsea (with a bubbling hukkah pipe) and a psychedelic tune that almost segues into a Hair reprise.
There was a Brutus once
Much of the influence behind this portrayal comes from the portrayal of Egypt and Cleopatra in the Greco-Roman authors which Shakespeare would have read (most famously in North’s translation of Plutarch). I have talked about this elsewhere, but it is worth briefly comparing Plutarch to Shakespeare.
Thus Plutarch’s line:
“Accordingly, [Philotas, a physican] was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: “The guests are not many, only about twelve”
“MAECENAS. Eight wild boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there. Is this true?
ENOBARBUS. This was but as a fly by an eagle: we had much more monstrous matter of feast, which worthily deserved noting.”
Of course, the examples go on. Antony in Plutarch is wasteful and ill disciplined, Antony in Shakespeare is debaunched, drunken and living in excess (much like a sixities rock star).
Distasteful to the Romans, but very admirable to modern tastes.
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
The best part of the play was Cleopatra. Josette Simon was stunning in this role. At times vixenish, love-sick and bored, and at other times self pocessing and every inch the queen who defied her brother and made tremble the greatest empire of the world. Her death at the end of the play was a powerful scene, signifying both her dignity as a queen and as a bereaved lover. She is a fine character actor and brought a depth and resonance to her lines. A genuinely period defining role.
Overall, both very fine plays. 3/5 and 4/5 respectively.
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