The Royal Shakespeare Company has launched its “Complete Works” season with its own stagings of Shakespeare’s two most famous tragedies of love. Common sense tells us that the company should be fielding its expert Antony and Cleopatra team – Gregory Doran directing the actors Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles – in the problematic large 1,412-seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre, while the inexperienced juniors should be tackling Romeo and Juliet in the three-tier dream space of the Swan, which, even with standees, has places only for 462 people. But, since the RSC very seldom puts Antony in an intimate theatre, let’s just be grateful for the luxury.

Stewart’s white-haired but powerfully built Antony isn’t just besotted, he’s larkily so; and Walter’s Cleopatra – the slender curves of her figure gorgeously apparent – is capricious, mercurial, beguiling. Doran encourages Stewart in particular to use the intimacy of the Swan space: I have never heard so much of Antony’s role spoken quietly, inwardly, especially as he ruefully surveys how his Egyptian wassails are ruining his worldly glory.

Everything is lucid here. But not always lively. The minx-like Walter employs a studied, exotic-regal voice whose whipped-cream tone often makes her dental consonants hard to hear. And she is a Cleopatra of distinctly finite variety. Her rages do not terrify, it is inconceivable that she would hop 40 paces through a public place, and her self-contradictions are not remarkable.

Like her (and like Ken Bones’s Enobarbus), Stewart, especially speaking loud, sounds too actorly. I like the humour and worldliness he brings the role, but I sense no tragic dimension, no sense of anguish in falling short of what it once was to be Antony. Yes, this is the play where Shakespeare transcends tragedy, where the night and love and death prove larger than the day and life and dominion, but there are moments along the way where Antony’s failure and Cleopatra’s inconsistency should heartstoppingly show us – show them – the tragic and political dimensions of their tale. I imagine the production will gather more chiaroscuro, more fire, as it remains in repertory till October; I hope it gathers more spontaneity too. ★★★☆☆

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