Shelley Lang as Cleopatra

The Hope Theatre claims it is “London’s newest and only theatre committed exclusively to new writing”. Rare among fringe venues, this new theatre also pays actors. Hope is a place to experiment, therefore, filled with performers who can afford to eat. It’s a promising start.

The idea for Gareth Cadwallader’s play is also promising. “Cleopatra was living in Rome on the day of Caesar’s assassination!” he exclaims in the programme; she was his lover and the mother of his son. Thus Cadwallader imagines the morning of the Ides of March from the perspective of Cleopatra’s Roman home.

The dialogue needs a prune, but the plot is compelling. While the queen’s courtiers lounge, we hear news of riots; agitated Roman generals drop by in turn ( Cleopatra seduces Anthony, but not Brutus; Octavius is amazingly sinister); and there’s a fuss about the contents of the tyrant’s will. Scenes are haunted by our foreknowledge of Caesar’s murder.

Shelley Lang’s Cleopatra is a fidgety, tipsy sex-puss on the brink of hysteria – it’s a delightful performance. Yet she has to work too hard. While she is effervescent, Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s eunuch delivers lines without intonation or human expression. Lang, therefore, has nothing to play off, which is wrong. And many of the supporting cast appear to have followed Mallory-Skinner’s withdrawn approach. Consequently, there is a dearth of conflict – drama, that is – in nearly two hours of playing time. The story seems to matter very little.

Mary Franklin’s direction lacks muscle and she makes lazy creative choices. The pharaoh’s insouciance and the voluptuous chaos of her court, for instance, are conveyed by tipping papers on the floor. It’s a mess.

Amy Job’s design doesn’t help either. Her royal palace consists of white garden furniture, plastic bottles and a chaise longue. With the exception of Cleopatra, who wears a handsome peacock headdress, costumes amount to a nondescript hotchpotch of contemporary garments – a turtleneck jumper, a cream dress, a shirt with a big stripe down one side . . . None of it has any discernible meaning or purpose.

But this is an experiment, not a disaster. And experiments should be free to fail, especially if they are made on a shoestring.

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