For the second time in a week I am watching a boldly cut version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. But, whereas King Lear at Chichester has been given a short back and sides primarily for brevity’s sake, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s version of Antony And Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company is directly concerned with bringing out the dimension of . . . let me say “colour” rather than “race”.
By and large, the Egyptians are black, the Romans white. The ritual celebrations and lamentations of the former, and the gold-frogged knee-length military tunics of the latter, place us roughly in colonial Haiti. So far, so fine. But then there are the possibilities that are fumbled. Is Antony’s immersion in things Egyptian not reduced to a rather unsubtle form here, akin to what English colonists called “going native”, where its original Shakespearean manifestation was a more complex instance of Edward Said’s orientalism? If the play’s nearest thing to a viewpoint character, Antony’s follower Enobarbus, is played (as he is, excellently, by Chukwudi Iwuji) as a black Roman, why is there no attempt to explore the richness/contradictions/liminality of such a status? In some respects, rather than being radical, this version pulls up just where it could more excitingly be jumping off.
McCraney’s production (which visits Miami and New York in the new year) uses an Anglo-American ensemble of 10. Jonathan Cake specialises in the smiling, swaggering self-consciousness which bedevils the Antony of this play. Joaquina Kalukango’s Cleopatra (with Cake’s Antony) is pert and peremptory without being imperious; she is used to getting her own way, but not on a global scale. Samuel Collings captures the callow youth of Octavius Caesar but not his calculation. Chivas Michael doubles as Antony’s batman Eros and a deliciously feline incarnation of Cleopatra’s eunuch Mardian.
Tom Piper’s design leaves the stage all but bare: a basic folding stool comes on only for the final scenes. McCraney’s restless imagination has repeatedly explored various present, past and simultaneously superimposed dimensions of black American identity; if this is not one of his greatest successes, it is by no means a failure either.