No director has ever made his or her reputation directing “Antony and Cleopatra” for one good reason: It’s actually not a great play. The tragic love story was one of the world’s most famous even before 1963, when 20th Century Fox cast Liz Taylor and threw an astounding $44 million at it. But while Shakespeare lavished some of his richest poetry upon his lovers, the strain of telling an intimate story across an epic canvas shows. The play remains memorable, however, for its title roles, seized here by Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter.
Long before he clambered aboard USS Enterprise, Stewart was a core Royal Shakespeare Company thesp for nearly two decades, during which time he won an Olivier Award as supporting actor for his Enobarbus in an earlier production of this play. That may partially account for his initial ease as Antony in Gregory Doran’s new production.
Chasing a frisky, clawing Cleopatra across the stage to the bemusement of her long-suffering court, he is clearly besotted by his wily “serpent of old Nile.” He lights up at her girlish affections and is amusingly loath to address himself to matters of business. That degree of irresponsibility chimes neatly with the dilemma of the role.
Antony is a character with a glorious past and a seriously weak present — an unflattering scenario for any actor and one seriously difficult to pull off. Stewart fleshes out the sense of Antony’s earlier achievement, but once the Roman politics plot kicks in, the actor topples into the trap almost every Antony falls into: He tries too hard to turn him into a powerful figure.
The angrier he grows at the machinations of John Hopkins’ Octavius Caesar, the more “actorly” he becomes. You start noticing the sound of his voice rather than the meaning of the words.
By contrast, Walter’s mercurial Cleopatra grows in depth as the play proceeds. Walter has only recently finished playing one monarch — a ramrod-straight-backed Elizabeth I in “Mary Stuart” — but this performance couldn’t be more different. Here she appears most majestic when growling, her low voice indicating a wellspring of power. Slinking about in Kandis Cook’s sheath dresses in pale pleated silks and linen — a kind of Issey Miyake goes to Egypt — she first appears in the regulation Egyptian wig, which she soon tears off in tiredness. This, we realize, is her crown.
Beneath that public image is a properly complex woman, one of Shakespeare’s richest female characters, occasionally almost matching “As You Like It’s” Rosalind for the power to run scenes of the play by her sheer intelligence and temperament.
Surrounding the two of them is the problem of the play’s ceaseless cross-cutting. With the Swan Theater audience enveloping the action on three sides, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis wisely clears the stage of clutter and creates opposing worlds with little but props and costumes. His back wall is a relief map, which Tim Mitchell lights with gold for Egypt and a colder, blue tone for the Roman scenes.
Doran harnesses his cast to that economy of means. To a degree, the best approach for the play is to finesse the actors and get out of the way of the plot. The production lacks the arc of a binding interpretation, but that’s because the almost entirely expository play would not withstand it. Doran instead provides storytelling of real detail.
Not that his production is without setpieces. There’s a roistering drunken party aboard ship, and Doran pulls off a coup for Antony’s death, having him pulled up on ropes to a gallery so he can die in desperate Cleopatra’s arms. The play then lifts into poetry as Walter lends Cleopatra touching gravitas.
Doran’s clarity allows other performances to rise up. Golda Rosheuvel is a calm but powerful Charmian. She does little but suggests a lot about a life spent in service to her queen. By contrast, Hopkins’ Octavius may be intriguingly repressed and reproving, but his perf is dangerously self-regarding.
The two standouts are in the most unexpected roles. Lepidus, the weakest of the Roman triumvirate, is regularly underplayed, but a seriously benign James Hayes quietly illuminates him as a gentle man out of his depth. It whets the appetite for his assumption of the title role in the RSC’s upcoming “Julius Caesar.”
Then, just when you thought Doran’s precise production had delivered its all, on comes Julian Bleach as the clown. Most famous as the malevolent MC in “Shockheaded Peter,” Bleach is living proof of the adage that there are no small parts. The sole reason for his presence is to deliver Cleopatra’s deadly asp, so his snide manner and serpentine tones fittingly chill the blood.