Iqbal Khan (Much Ado About Nothing, Othello) returns to the RSC to direct Shakespeare’s tragedy of love and power.

Immediately following the gripping Julius Caesar by RSC Rome Season Director Angus Jackson, Iqbal Khan's Antony & Cleopatra is less concerned with tense political intrigue than with myth-making on an epic scale.

Robert Innes Hopkins' design – already sumptuously stylish in the previous show – here becomes still grander, all moving platforms, spectacular sea battles, steamy saunas and luxurious furnishings. Languid characters swan around in shimmering golden gowns or breast plates in burnished bronze and gleaming white. An air of delicious decadence hangs as heavily over the show as the plush velvet curtain which is the first thing that we see. Serving both as a nod to the violent history that's brought them here and as an omen of the tragedy to come, the brutal horse and lion statue that took pride of place in Julius Caesar now sits atop stone columns, watching over the action like a stand-in for the gods themselves. In the second half, meanwhile, those iconic columns are replaced by weather-beaten wooden posts lining the pier the ships depart from, seeming to prefigure the end of this great empire in one of the play's most arresting visual images.

Accordingly, this is a production for larger-than-life characterisation, rather than the subtlety of Julius Caesar. As Cleopatra, Josette Simon is as bafflingly capricious and mercurial as a Classical goddess, going from grieving to giggling mid-sentence. Her physicality is startling – the only time she's ever still is when she's finally seated on her throne in proud, statuesque death.

Through the hyperbolic praise and adulation heaped on Cleopatra by Enobarbus, and on Antony by Cleopatra, as well as in Antony's dismay at Octavius' “harping on what I am / Not what he knew I was,” Shakespeare gives us a sense of these characters' heightened understanding of themselves as something already legendary, almost unreal. This Khan finally emphasises through a literal stripping down – as it transpires, even Cleopatra's hair is not her own. Though their physical bodies perish, both Antony and Cleopatra seem confident in the knowledge that their story will live on long after Octavius Caesar is all but forgotten.

Both Antony Byrne and Ben Allen deliver performances consistent with their younger counterparts James Corrigan and Jon Tarcy in Julius Caesar, changed through experience but still believably the same characters. Octavius may be a little older, but in Ben Allen's hands, he's lost none of the arrogance and impetuosity that comes of riding on the coattails of his more worthy uncle, and which made him so believably brattish and annoying in the first play. Meanwhile, Byrne is warm and charismatic, possessed of a more well-earned confidence, machismo and lust for life.

For all that, the show sadly doesn't live up to the promise of Julius Caesar, instead throwing into sharp relief the strength of that earlier production. In fairness, Antony and Cleopatra is a less dramatic, less forgiving play to start with, requiring much bolder directorial decisions than Khan has made (surprising, given the high-concept quality of his last two RSC offerings). The play itself is partly saved by the poetry of its major speeches, but in this case, even these feel underpowered, helped little by some questionable put-on accents. Combined with its grand, stately pace, the result is that it often struggles to hold attention. Still, it's big on atmosphere, thanks in part to Laura Mvula's rich, powerful score as well as the fantastic visuals. Perhaps a more ruthless textual edit is in order: like Mark Antony, the production feels as though it needs some spurring on to action. 

Reviewed by Heather Kincaid

3 Stars on Fri, 24 Mar 2017

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