I once had an argument with a colleague reading whether not “Shakespeare hated women,” at the time I brought up all the strong Shakespearean women, Beatrice from Much ado about Nothing, Lady Macbeth, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, and yet managed to exclude one of the Bard’s most fiery of females, the Queen of Egypt herself; Cleopatra.
However, after seeing Catherine McClements as the passionate leader of Egypt, Cleopatra goes straight to the top of the list of reasons as to why Shakespeare admired and respected the female characters he created. McClements’ Cleopatra is a force to be reckoned with, an untamable spirit whose loyalty to her country is only matched by her love for the great Roman warrior Mark Antony (Johnny Carr).
The two leads are convincing as tumultuous romantics, caught between duty and love, however Carr’s Antony is played more as a romantic leading man than great warrior. This detracts from the tension on stage rather than heightens it, as Antony continues to chase Cleopatra and the audience has less understanding of the magnitude of his absence from Rome and the consequences it may have.
Bell Shakespeare is renowned for their stylistic genius and choices of the design team. In Antony and Cleopatra the Ancient World is transformed into 1990s living rooms, and corporate spaces, all neutral tones and luscious fabrics that bring the primitive world into the modern with great success. Designed by Anna Cordingley, the small space is transformed with transparent curtains whilst battles and time pass through projections enabling the story to keep pace. The simplicity of this design, contradicted by the intricacy of Shakespeare’s language, and the grand love of Antony and Cleopatra against the backdrop of war reflects the idea that the characters struggles, deviance and passion make up the colour palate of this production.
Ray Chong Nee is divine as the millenarian Enobarbus, Antony’s right hand man torn between what’s right for Rome and his loyalty to Antony. Lucy Goleby makes a powerful statement as Pompey and is a commanding feature of this production. Gareth Reeves plays Octavius Caesar with a quiet contemplation, regal but spineless which is reflected in his slick and smarmy costume design.
What is most fascinating about Antony and Cleopatra are the relationships between the women. Cleopatra and her servants Charmain (Zindzi Okenyo) and Alexas (Janine Watson) whom have for a decade served her, are bound together by a force stronger than master/servant, but of love, loyalty and friendship. Their deaths together in the face of dishonor are testament to the respect Shakespeare had for female figures of power.
Director Peter Evans has taken on a massive task in putting on Antony and Cleopatra and there is a lot to love about this production and of course some kinks to be ironed out. As always, Bell Shakespeare continues to push the boundaries of Shakespeare, as we know it, and in doing so is capable of bringing these works to a more diverse audience.
Bell Shakespeare presents
Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Director Peter Evans
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 26 April – 13 May 2018
Tickets: $40 – $92