I grew up watching Josette Simon as Dayna in the BBC sci-fi TV series Blake 7. She’s returned to the RSC after 17 years to play the Queen of Egypt in Iqbal Khan’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. I couldn’t believe it when the Leicester-born actor appeared from under the bedsheets with Mark Antony. She doesn’t appear to have aged in the slightest (*sniff).
Antony & Cleo: Josette Simon and Antony Byrne
Still as beautiful, the lithe-limbed and energetic Josette glides seductively across the stage as the pair cavort passionately in their coordinating cream togas. This is the intense love affair of a couple in middle age who behave like teenagers.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ shimmeringly beautiful Egyptian set
When set in Egypt, a huge dark crimson curtain drapes over marble pillars, the characters lounge insouciant on day bed and throne as gorgeous gold/bronze costumes shimmer; while in Rome Octavius Caesar (Ben Allen) and his advisors chat in a steamy Turkish bath. A sea battle is portrayed using miniature toy-like ships and in another seafaring scene the stage is effectively transformed into a galleon. Moody skies prevail behind battle scenes.
Cleopatra is often portrayed in history and film as a raging nymphomaniac but in an interview with The Guardian, Josette feels that Shakespeare is the only person who ‘gets her’ and does the queen justice. Josette’s impressive Cleopatra has many modern feminist traits – she’s a volatile, wily leader and a control freak to the end – refusing to conform to a man’s world. But I couldn’t put my finger on her accent – was it a posh African lilt or husky transatlantic drawl? It was quite distracting.
Showing her vulnerable side: Cleopatra and Caesar’s aid Agrippa (James Corrigan)
Powerful yet needy Cleopatra wears her heart on her sleeve and indulges in her celebrity status like one of the Kardashians. Cleo is definitely a diva – Nina Simone comes to mind. Bearded Antony Byrne looks like a solider, and brings a raw honesty to Mark Antony. At 2 hours 55 minutes, plus a 20 minute interval, it’s fairly long. Some may find inserting Cleopatra’s nude death scene unnecessary; others a bold choice. It’s a brave decision for any actor to bare all on stage (think Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Anna Friel in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room).
Roman general Mark Antony (Antony Byrne) and Enobarbus (Andrew Woodall)
Award-winning Birmingham singer-songwriter Laura Mvula composed the atmospheric Middle-Eastern inspired score which she describes as “somewhere between Prince’s Purple Rain and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain”.
Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are now running in rep side-by-side –the first double-bill in the RSC’s four-play Rome series. Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus will complete the quartet of Shakespeare’s most political and bloody thrillers in June and September. Season director is Angus Jackson, who brought the brilliant atom bomb drama Oppenheimer and Don Quixote, to the RSC stage. He’s directing Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, while Blanche McIntyre directs Titus Andronicus.
A series of debates will explore the power dynamics of Shakespeare’s Rome through the lens of politics today. The panels will include directors and actors from the season. The debates take place on Thu July 20 and Fri August 4 at The Other Place, rsc.org.uk/events
Running time: 2hrs 55 min, with a 20-min interval.
Antony and Cleopatra runs until Sept 7; and Julius Caesar until September 9, rsc.org.uk, Tel:01789 403493