It’s Friday, so welcome to the fifth film in our six-week Friday Film Focus on Antony and Cleopatra. Each week, I’m presenting a capsule review of an A&C video, with full reviews coming in a future podcast.
In 2014, Shakespeare’s Globe in London presented a production of the play, directed by Jonathan Munby, with Clive Wood as Antony and Eve Best as Cleopatra.
Now, I’ve always liked the Shakespeare’s Globe productions. They’re captured live on stage before an audience, in broad daylight, and with the Globe’s signature faux-Elizabethan presentation. For me the magic of these productions is found in the feeling at every moment that each actor knows exactly what he or she is saying (and their ability to connect those feelings to the audience).
And this did not disappoint.
From the opening song and dance, giving us a feel for the intoxicating decadence of Egypt, to a ending death tableau that finally gives us Cleopatra as we imagine her, the production is stellar. Director Munby gives us a couple who is at the start is always performing; when Antony is called back to Rome, his performance must end, and I think he expects hers to disappear as well, but it doesn’t. It’s only after Antony’s death that Eve Best’s Cleopatra drops her performance and becomes real, pitifully so, only to take up performance again in her death.
Eve Best is a marvel. Funny, sexy, mercurial, and finally heartbreaking. Clive Wood’s Antony on the other hand is a man out of place. If the dotage made him want to play-act with Cleopatra, it also kills his ability to do his real job: warrior-leader. And when that job fails, then he’s a man left to self-doubt and jealousy. His explosion at Cleopatra late in the play is not out of frustration or wounded pride as I’ve seen in other productions but purely out of jealousy (because at this point, she is all he has left).
There are some wonderful moments here. Enobarbus’ barge speech, which builds as his listeners egg him on. The depiction of the Egyptian processional following Octavian/Octavia scene, leading into intermission. Iras’ surprisingly emotional death. Charmian’s big, funny, personality. The removal of the “gee, I wonder how they died” unnecessary dialogue near the end.
But what struck me most about this tragedy…was the comedy. There are more laughs here than I’ve seen in some comedies (especially those directed by Trevor Nunn). Cleopatra’s interaction with the eunuch. Her interaction with the audience (and theirs with her). Antony’s failed suicide also gets an earned laugh. A comic clown that works in the context of delivering what will ultimately kill Cleopatra.
Does everything Munby tries work? Of course not. The onstage appearances of characters who are not there physically, but in the minds of the speakers (Octavia for Octavian, Antony for Enobarbus) is a little too on-the-nose for my liking. And the rearranging of the two exposition scenes in Act Three didn’t serve a purpose, or at least one I could see.
But these are quibbles. And this is a top-notch production. Definitely worth the price of a rental from Shakespeare’s Globe. You should check it out…