Saturday, September 29, 2012

There's no fool like an old fool in Chichester's fine Antony and Cleopatra

Michael Pennington's Antony in Chichester's Antony and Cleopatra is an absolutely spellbinding performance. I have always thought that the play, which was one of my "A Level" set texts nearly fifty years ago (!), is primarily about language and character. There is no finer speaker of Shakespeare's English than Pennington and, in this production anyway, no finer creator of character.

The premise of the play is that Antony has essentially lost his marbles in lust - that Cleopatra's charms so disturb his mind that he becomes a "Strumpet's fool" - and an old one at that. The "Dotage of our General's" diminishes him in the eyes of those who were his loyal servants and followers. Pennington plays him with unkempt long white hair and dresses, mostly, in a loose garment that would more usually be seen on Lear than Antony. It works - not least because with Kim Cattrall we have a Cleopatra that men of a certain age (Antony's) would more than likely fall for! Unlike Pennington Cattrall is no classical actress and she gives initially a rather  low-key impression but one which grows as the long play progresses. The Director Janet Suzman has played Cleopatra herself and one suspects she knew exactly what she wanted from Ms Cattrall - and that her star delivers.

The production has few distractions to take you away from the text  - and the comparitive intimacy of the Festival Theatre brings you very close to the characters. Pennington fills the stage with his melodious voice and his striking physical presence. Cattrall requires more effort - her diction is not always crystal clear and her style is quite diffident a times. The interplay between the two of them is convincing but it is not until Cleopatra seeks news about Octavia (who Antony has just married) that we are convinced that her love is real and not expedient. And the final scenes after Antony's death are wholly convincing - fine acting in a dangerous area, one which has frequently been parodied from Morecambe and Wise to "Carry on Cleo"!

Martin Hutson gives a cool persona to Octavius Caeser - he is mostly dressed in a grey business suit and looks more Jeremy Hunt than Roman Emperor. The contrast with the aging and distracted Antony in his loose-fitting cotton toga is cleverly drawn. Here is Caeser the reasoned technocrat to replace the emotional mess that is Mark Antony. Antony's great friend and ally Enobarbus is beautifully played by Ian Hogg - a central figure whose reluctant  desertion marks the beginning of the end for his erstwhile master.

Antony and Cleopatra is the last play at the Festival Theatre before it closes for its eighteen month refit. It is a fine way to bring the curtain down on fifty years of playmaking in this distinctive and very special theatre.