Vanessa Redgrave promised that her interpretation of “Antony and Cleopatra” would be “about the English Cleopatra — who was, of course, Elizabeth I. It’s not some Egyptian lady with a black wig on.” Sure enough, as the co-star of her own production, Redgrave is indeed wearing the attire normally associated with Queen Elizabeth. And the only wig she ever wears is of a frightful orange color.
Redgrave’s take on the Queen of the Nile makes perfect sense within the context of this particular “Antony and Cleopatra.” Like the “Julius Caesar” directed by brother Corin Redgrave, her production is presented with Elizabethan period costumes and sets. Both historical tragedies are co-productions of the Alley and the Redgraves’ London-based Moving Theater, and will be presented in repertory at the Alley through Feb. 11.
As Cleopatra, Redgrave is not so much a voluptuous temptress as a mature and dry-witted sensualist. She often is quite funny, particularly when she learns of her beloved Marc Antony’s marriage to Octavia.
But when it comes to expressing wild and tempestuous flights of passion, she remains doggedly earthbound. This, too, is in keeping with Redgrave’s overall interpretation of the play. In this “Antony and Cleopatra,” Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony (David Harewood, repeating his “Julius Caesar” role) is one marked by easygoing affection, not incandescently burning desire.
Trouble is, by cooling the hot-bloodedness of the doomed lovers, Redgrave undercuts the whole notion that their reckless lustiness drove them to risk war — and worse — to remain together. During their sporadic arguments and angry recriminations, Antony and Cleopatra seem more like dysfunctional co-dependents than mythic figures of tragedy. To be sure, that may be Redgrave’s intention. But it winds up making the characters slightly smaller than life.
There are other problems with this “Antony and Cleopatra,” not the least of which is the play itself: For all its poetry and passion, it remains one of Shakespeare’s most disjointed and discursive works. Under Redgrave’s briskly efficient but largely uninspired direction, it often seems rambling, even lumpy.
Still, the production has its moments, particularly in the closing scenes. Antony’s suicide is presented with a mischievous touch of dark humor, while Cleopatra’s demise has the haunting air of a ritualistic ceremony.
Within the constraints imposed by Redgrave’s interpretation, she and Harewood give credible and creditable performances. Once again, however, the real scene-stealer is Howard Saddler, whose Octavius Caesar is every bit as authoritative as his Caius Cassius in “Julius Caesar.”