What is the worst thing you can say about a Shakespeare production? That it’s dull? That it’s overly reverential? That, if someone who had never seen Shakespeare before had to sit through it, they’d be put off the Bard for life? That it’s staged for wealthy white people living in detached houses in the Cotswolds? Well, we don’t need to decide, because you can say all of those things about Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra, which is – and there’s no other expression for it – arse-numbingly boring.
Why is it so dull? Partly because Khan adopts the same criminally conventional vision as Angus Jackson does for Julius Caesar. Partly because half the ensemble speaks the text like its Tacitus’ Annals and the other half like it’s a James Brown song. Partly because the power-brokers of empire seem more suited to sitting GCSEs than carving up the known world. And partly because – sacrilege perhaps – Antony and Cleopatra is just a bit of a dud Shakespeare, lacking the violence of Titus Andronicus, the politics of Julius Caesar, and the compellingly divided central role of Coriolanus.
Khan’s production is miscast across the board, too. Our central couple – here played by Antony Byrne and Josette Simon – are about as believable a pair of lovers as Dennis Skinner and Nicki Minaj. He’s a ruddy-faced, pot-bellied barfly with an accent as broad as his sword, she’s as capricious as her wandering voice, which leaps between Louisiana, Paris and Cheltenham Ladies’ College. She belongs on an Eartha Kitt record, he in a dingy suburban pub somewhere north of Nottingham. They are both, in their ways, performances of shameless self-indulgence.
And without a passingly interesting romance to hold the attention, Antony and Cleopatra becomes one hell of a slog: endless messengers between Octavian and Antony and Lepidus and Bepidus and Schmepidus, constant to-ing and fro-ing between Rome and Athens and Egypt and the toilet, sea battles, land battles, battles to stay awake. When you’re reduced to snickering over someone called Sextus Pompey, something’s gone seriously wrong.
As with Julius Caesar, it’s Robert Innes Hopkins’ glorious set that ends up picking up the pieces. Rome – now transitioning between Republic and Imperial state – is again realised with magesterial grandeur in lofty, white marble and swishing, crimson-hemmed togas. But it’s Alexandria, not Rome, that strokes the imagination best. A blood red sash swoops from ceiling to floor, jet black cat statues laced with gold stand guard majestically, and Laura Mvula’s original score – a heavenly blend of soaring vocals and ethereal airs – resonates powerfully; sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not, which is more than can be said for the vowels of Simon’s Cleopatra.
There’s obviously an audience for Shakespeare done like it was before the Boer War – witness the sea of grey-heads bustling around the gift shop tat pre-show – and if the RSC wants to cater for that audience, then fine. Only a fool would argue that traditionally staged Shakespeare has no place in modern British theatre, after all. But for Caesar’s sake, if you’re going to do it all conventionally, at least do it well, at least do it with some fire, at least do it with wit and intelligence.
Anthony and Cleopatra is on until 7th September 2017 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Click here for more details.