Vanessa Redgrave dresses Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” in Elizabethan garb, the ruffled collars and gilded finery drawing parallels between the Bard’s B.C. lovers and the fading Renaissance of Elizabeth’s reign. Both eras, Redgrave suggests, were marked by the replacement of free-thinking humanism with repressive, conservative religiosity. Redgrave’s staging makes a convincing argument for her intellectual proposition, even while it lacks the emotional force we’ve come to expect from one of history’s great romances.
Although she takes to the stage dancing, Redgrave’s approach to the Egyptian queen is anything but the lusty sensualist of lore and Hollywood. The actress, as compelling as ever, turns Cleopatra into a razor-sharp wit, her passions as intellectual as visceral — the love between her queen and Antony (David Harewood) seems more based on shared philosophy than body chemistry. That’s not to say the performances are bloodless — they aren’t — but they don’t soar to the mythic levels usually associated with Antony and Cleopatra.
In addition to the Elizabethan angle, Redgrave’s most visible innovation here is the casting of a boyish young actress (Carrie Preston) to portray Octavius Caesar, the 19-year-old leader who eventually triumphs over Antony and Cleopatra. In this version, Caesar isn’t so much effeminate as pubescent, an earnest, though rather soulless, youth given to tears and an unshakable (if again rather soulless) Protestant conviction. It is his dogmatic world that will squelch the more thoughtful humanism of Antony’s.
Despite her own conviction, Redgrave doesn’t turn “Antony and Cleopatra” into a dry political treatise. Her direction, though not as fiery as one might hope, brings out the life in Shakespeare’s text. Redgrave employs her often neglected comic talents in a scene in which Cleopatra interrogates a messenger about the new love in Antony’s life, and cuts to the bone with her moans upon learning of his death. In the play’s final scene, as she’s stripped of her elaborate dress by her enemies, she stands in a simple black slip while her spirit and love transcend the low circumstance. Even sitting in a chair before her victors, Redgrave’s Cleopatra is a regal force.
Still, the production does have its share of missteps, notably a reliance on anachronism that comes off more gimmicky than useful. In the second act, the faces of the actors occasionally appear, via video camera, on a large overhead screen, the close-ups a jarring distraction (even if the shots of Redgrave’s expressive face are stunning reminders of why she’s such a compelling film actress). During one military action, a character uses a bullhorn, and a “Wanted” poster for “Antony, M.” is plastered to a column. There’s little wit in such trappings, and their intrusion can make the production seem loud and silly at times.
But those moments are few — as are moments of transcendence. Only occasionally does “Antony and Cleopatra” rise above a certain efficiency, however entertaining. And most of the high points are clustered toward the end, as when Antony’s faithful captain Eros (Teagle F. Bougere), unable to carry out Antony’s death wish, kills himself instead — the staging is both simple and dramatic. Cleopatra’s death by asp is another stunner, as Redgrave is decked out in a flowing, glittery gown and veil of gold that stretches across the stage.
In addition to Redgrave, the cast, making much use of John Arnone’s set of scaffolds and catwalks, performs with vitality, particularly Bougere as Eros and Alex Allen Morris as Enobarbus. Harewood is a strong Antony, though his lack of chemistry with Redgrave is one of the production’s greatest weaknesses.
The gambit to fill the Caesar role with Preston is perhaps more interesting than rewarding, as one is hard-pressed to imagine this dewy-eyed prig as a leader great enough to trump the more full-bodied title characters. While it’s Redgrave’s intention to depict the victory of dogma over free thought, her own stature as an actress demands a more equal fight.