Antony and Cleopatra, Novello Theatre, London

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We may think we live in a world of spin and image, but we have nothing on those chaps in the ancient world, as Gregory Doran’s fine Royal Shakespeare Company production of Antony and Cleopatra suggests. Enobarbus’s account of Cleopatra’s famed entrance on a golden barge makes clear that this was a splendid example of image management; Antony’s reputation has been gilded by reports of his extreme measures of survival in the Alps; Octavius Caesar ensures that his platitudes about peace are written down for public consumption. And it is clear that while Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra and Patrick Stewart’s Antony are besotted with each other, they are also half in love with the idea of their affair: of a romance between two iconic leaders.

But they are not these mythical beings; they are human and fading. Antony, famed warrior and party animal, takes frequent nips of a hip flask; Cleopatra suddenly whips off her perfect wig to reveal her real, cropped hair.

Doran’s production emphasises the frailties of the two leaders. They are arrogant, charismatic and capricious and they both hold the stage: Stewart’s excellent Antony still has a magnetic, easy charm and command; Walter’s Cleopatra, though not convincingly sensuous or angry, is brilliantly mercurial, astute and witty. But they are also vulnerable – and their awareness of their mortality and the growing gap between them and their images drives the drama.

Such details are typical too of Doran’s lucid, humane account of Shakespeare’s play. It bowls along at a good brisk pace against Stephen Brimson Lewis’ simple backdrop of peeling gold and it is studded with intelligent performances. John Hopkins’ poker-faced Octavius is consumed by his own ambition and a puritanical horror of the pleasures of the flesh; Ken Bones’ rueful, Enobarbus has seen it all before; James Hayes’ ageing Lepidus has to ease himself down when invited to sit on the floor. And so we see how the personal and political intertwine and understand Cleopatra’s final flourish as she wreathes her dead lover with poetry and stage-manages her own death in a blaze of gold and torchlight.

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