Leura Everglades Gardens, January 22
Imagine two Donald Trumps cohabiting in the White House, and you have a snapshot of one aspect of the kaleidoscopic relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Of course Trump is a vulgar, hollow caricature of himself compared with Shakespeare’s great protagonists, but they share some less-than-endearing traits: rampant narcissism, expecting cowering obeisance, and absolute conviction that they are the axis around which the world rotates. The defining differences are that Antony has (or had) at his heart a nobility that Trump could never contemplate, let alone grasp, and Cleopatra possesses an impressive intellect that dwarf’s Trump rat-cunning and deal-mongering. Besides they share a grandeur that is the antithesis of tin-pot despots.
It is by depicting a love affair between such larger-than-life creatures that Shakespeare creates friction of such massive energy as to drive both the play’s comedy and tragedy. The greatest triumph of Damien Ryan’s Sport For Jove production is the reassertion of this high comedy to its rightful place, not as throwaway moments, but as the play’s beating heart, that then taints all the ensuing sadness with irony.
No female role in Shakespeare demands more of an actress than Cleopatra, with her vivid mood-shifts between saucy humour, spank-worthy petulance, queenly majesty, mischievous teasing, political pragmatism, alluring amorousness, girlish spite, a lover’s grief and potent intelligence. Not only must all these aspects of her multifarious character be realised, but so must the light-switch changes between them. Camilla Ah Kin achieves partial success. She catches something of the whirlwind the character embodies (and its giddying effect on those around her), nails the teasing humour and is supreme at retreating in a moment from public bravado to private anguish. The majestic and seductive elements of Cleopatra are less convincing, though, which in turn undermines Antony’s motivation in sticking around.
Christopher Stollery brings the right mix of bluff soldier, charismatic leader and attentive lover to an Antony who is fading as a force from the play’s opening lines; dissipated through booze, lack of purpose and an infatuation that is at least partly destructive for both lovers, but especially for Antony. When the play’s pitch rises in Act IV, however, Stollery struggles to lift Antony to the requisite short-lived heights without the performance becoming more mannered.
Few if any Shakespeare plays have so many lesser roles for actors to relish. Chief among these is Enobarbus, here played by Berynn Schwerdt as a likable, swaggering drunk, and one of the few characters who is not deluded in some way. Schwerdt’s delivery of Enobarbus’s rapturous Act II description of Cleopatra (“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, / Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; / Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / the winds were love-sick with them…”) was gripping. As great as any piece of poetry in all Shakespeare, it can seem a stretch that it rolls from the mouth of this no-nonsense soldier, but Schwerdt made it seem credible that the magnificence of the vision could transport such a man. Given that Antony dies a fumbling death in which black humour infects the pathos, and that Cleopatra dies on her own terms, Enobarbus’s end – conscience-stricken at his betrayal of Antony – could be seen as the most truly tragic of the story, and Schwerdt’s performance realised this.
Ryan cast Felicity McKay as Octavius, with the role played as a woman. This created several distortions in the power relationships, although not so many in Octavius, himself, who in essence is just a time-and-motion bureaucrat with an eye for world domination.
Among a cast of 14 it was especially delightful to see Tony Taylor making his Sport For Jove debut. The veteran made feasts out of four minor roles, including the clown who provides his queen with the asp at the end.
If designer Georgia Hopkins’ high wooden platform and staircase obscured the natural beauty of the Leura Everglades setting, they did solve the problem of Cleopatra’s monument (to which Antony is “heaved aloft”). It also allowed Ryan to make his customary swift transitions between scenes, with some set on the platform and some set below.
Another customary aspect of Ryan’s work, his light touch with humour (last year’s searing Antigone notwithstanding!), was in ample evidence, as was his love of theatrical metaphor when the battle scenes were largely enacted with two large waved flags.
Less successful (or necessary) was Cleopatra’s suddenly having a bundle purporting to be a child by Antony in her arms towards the end. This obscured motivations rather than illuminating them, when the son of the story was by Julius Caesar, but was probably included because previous references to Caesarion had been cut.
All in all this was a production that made a brave attempt to realise the most epic and wide-ranging of Shakespeare’s plays: what a current generation might see as the precursor to House of Cards.
Until January 29.