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As Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Frances Barber is a no-longer young sex kitten, an impulsive minx, and a star. As she gets down lasciviously on all fours wishing she were the horse that bears the weight of Antony; as she screams, burns, bites, beats the messenger who tells her he’s married Octavia; as she stands bolt-fast stage-centre to announce “I have immortal longings in me”, vividly she shows you the range of the character. The sheer attack of her performance is delicious – tonic after Harriet Walter’s handsome, regal, but too artificial and too contained Cleopatra (currently in Stratford-upon-Avon).
Yet you can’t miss that Barber falls short of the role. Too much tan/tawny make-up; and she overdoes her Alma Cogan bubble/squeak/ gurgle vocal tricks. And, even (especially) at her liveliest, as when she attacks that servant for his bad news, she lets us know she’s putting on an act.
Likewise Dominic Dromgoole’s entire production shows, without pretension, the contours of Shakespeare’s play – and lets us see, at every point, just how much greater the play is than this account. The look is unobtrusively Jacobean- ancient. The staging is never dull, it generally senses the verse pulse, it finds much of the play’s comedy, it’s refreshingly brisk, and it’s awake to the way that Shakespeare, even at his most transcendent, refuses to lock himself into the grand manner: human impulses keep surfacing, changing, stripping away. Occasionally it’s stirring. But never moving.
All the actors lack the kind of vocalism that would project to all parts of the Globe when they turn one way; and Barber is the only actor of any distinction. As Octavius Caesar, Jack Laskey has estuary vowels. Fred Ridgeway is an honest, bluff Enobarbus, without the verbal polish for “The winds were love-sick” and dull when it comes to final anguish. Nicholas Jones is a portly, suavely urbane old Antony, at his best in teasing Lepidus about the crocodile. But he’s no kind of hero and no kind of voluptuary. Why, after the interval, does he suddenly add a whole supply of gestures, often four per sentence? I almost thought I was watching the Swan Lake mime scene again. ★★☆☆☆
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