Octavius Caesar had virtually gained control of the ancient world before the kick-off. On press night, Clive Wood as Antony was still recovering from a virus that had made him miss several previews, and James Hayes was laid up with an injury and unable to play Lepidus. Even Cleopatra was sporting an ankle support. Fortunately, Christopher Saul read in efficiently as Lepidus and Wood’s performance seemed in no way attenuated by his recent illness. His Antony is indomitable in manner, even if at every significant point he loses in actual battle. Jonathan Munby’s production incorporates a number of classical verse extracts in musical form, but it is largely staged in standard Jacobean dress rather than togas and eastern doodads, so Wood’s Antony looks and feels like a blunt Englishman rather than a rarefied Roman.
Eve Best as Cleopatra is, unusually, still less exotic. The beautiful queen’s mercurial moods and a personality that is at once flibbertigibbet and manipulatrix render her compelling both to watch and to play; Best adds to this a vigour which … well, one seldom thinks of Cleopatra as a captain of netball, but it’s oddly plausible here. So energetic is her changeability that Sirine Saba as Charmian seems as much her PR flack as her waiting-woman, until the final acts bring a calmer fatalism.
This strong central couple dominate proceedings even more than usual, as a number of choices with second-tier characters fail to pay off. Octavius is usually portrayed as callow but cold and above all a keen strategist; here, Jolyon Coy is petulant throughout, quite deserving of the thinly veiled contempt with which Antony treats him; he even pouts resentfully at Cleopatra’s suicide. The casting of Phil Daniels as Antony’s trusted lieutenant Enobarbus is, I think, intended to emphasise the no-nonsense side of the character, but in practice Daniels’ demotic delivery limits the more soaring moments such as his early description of Cleopatra on her barge and his final defection and falling upon his sword.
As usual, the need to play to a lively Globe audience means that the most sombre tragedy sometimes goes by the board. Antony’s failure to dispatch himself cleanly gets a laugh, but Wood admirably reclaims this by laughing himself at the news that earlier word of Cleopatra’s death was false. In effect, this Antony and Cleopatra is all, but all, about those two.