I’ve come to enter the King St Theatre with some trepidation. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a full length play at this theatre that I’d classify as sustaining engagement. Harsh but true. So even though ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ is flawed, it’s the best thing I’ve seen at King St Theatre for a long time.
Director Ira Seidenstein has done something very unusual with Shakespeare’s text. He’s tried to find alternative ways to present the familiar and he’s not afraid to push boundaries. Even in his notes he discusses this production as a “project for a group of theatre practitioners to come together for a few weeks to throw off the shackles and protocols of good, conservative, conventional, commercial theatre…we are taking the time and risk to explore, rediscover and present the whole of Antony & Cleopatra”. Indeed he does. It’s over 3 hours (and the first half almost hits two hours alone). Sometimes it’s tough work but there’s enough in this production to keep you going.
It’s a flourish of an opening and it even managed to occasionally distract me from the two very young children in the second row eating their way through the corner store and then moving to the front seats to lie down and have a nap. It’s an odd play to bring your three and six year old daughters and then supply them with a vat of crisps and at what age do we actually eat with our mouth's closed? Well the fact that this play made me forget the feast happening behind me is a pretty good sign.
I appreciated the physical embodiment of the play as directed by Seidenstein. This play is constantly active and strives to keep the text moving. Sometimes it strays from good sense but it also challenges how you could play it and so it adds an intrigue to a well-known story. And please- after STC’s static first hour of ‘War of the Roses’, this was sheer relief.
There were times, as indicated, it made some very odd choices. A bit of kinky sex play between Antony (Berryn Schwerdt) and Octavia (Tammy Brennan), if you will. The hard hat and bunny ears gave a comic complexity to that relationship that was less than believable. I got the impression that nothing was too bold a choice in this interpretation. Heaven help the actor if he is waiting for Seidenstein to pull them back. ‘Make it bigger’ would be a more fitting description of his directorial vision.
But there are moments that add flavour to the text. Having Enocarbus (Brinley Meyer) played by and as a woman adds a new sexual tension, especially in her scenes with Agrippa (Paul McNally) and so the tango between them fits in the scene in a very odd kind of way. Seidenstein finds a musicality to the play and even lays down a beat using the proficient drumming skills of actor Yiss Mill. Antony’s death scene is also given a comic overhaul, as Cleopatra’s (Denby Weller) minions (Natalie Lopes, Bron Lim and Erin Gordon) move him around the stage, adding to the comic melodrama.
There are varying degrees of success in finding the right rhythm of delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Schwerdt is completely at home and he’s not afraid to commit to each moment, regardless of its absurdity and thus he finds an integrity in its oddity. Brendon Taylor also sat into the text and most of the cast certainly had moments of delivering this big play. Kudos to the student component in the cast. Although clearly lacking the sophistication of skills to make it sound or appear natural in execution, they had terrific energy and commitment.
Probably the strangest interpretation was of Octavia. Shakespeare refers to her as shy, reserved, demure- well practically frigid. She’s a screaming banshee in this play and the high emotion does not look comfortable for the audience or for Brennan. That then creates problems for the scenes with her and Antony and with Octavius (Jonathan Dunk). Cleopatra is also a bit hit and miss in regards to emotion. She is played at either extreme and so we never really get to know her more than superficially in this production. Her death then lacks impact- although to be fair, that can be said of all of the deaths in this show. But it’s hard to say whether that’s Weller or a directorial choice. I’ll go for the latter.
Seidenstein is an experienced clown and so his work with Bruno Lucia in his various roles in this play provides some of the best and most expressive moments of the night. Lucia knows exactly how to manipulate the comedy each time he is on the stage. There’s a light that goes on when he enters the space- he enters with presence.
I imagine the cast provided their own clothes because I see no costume designer credited. But I was impressed with the modernity and appropriateness of their choices and some of those actors are stylish indeed. I want to go shopping with Meyer and Weller.
The last 20 minutes felt like it needed a good edit but overall, I’m glad I saw this play and I think it’s worth a viewing. It’ll ‘make the familiar strange’ but that’s half of its charm because the cast are wholly committed to the exercise and it allows the audience to take the journey with them.
Get along before it closes on the 15th June. I’ll be interested in your thoughts…