Guided by focused performances, Liam Bellman-Sharpe’s Antony and Cleopatra is an engaging production that seldom slacks in pace as it hurtles towards its tragic conclusion.
Genevieve Cassin in particular cuts a powerful Cleopatra, whose remarkable stage presence commands respect. The control she exudes on the stage makes clear that the puppeteer in this game of political intrigue is Cleopatra, and her boundless ambition is absolutely enthralling.
Pompey (James Christensen) and Menas (Alexander Thom) introduce a believable threat to the stability of the Roman Empire early on, cementing at least some sense of danger to the powerful positions being contested. In fact, their confrontation during a drunken celebration over slaughtering their guests and usurping power is one of few scenes where the desires of the characters felt palpable.
Otherwise, backed by a very vague political context, the stakes in the production often felt too low to substantiate either political or romantic motivations.
Structurally, the play has been commendably pared down: the conspiracies of politics and the chaotic romance seamlessly intertwine and bleed into each other in a generally effortless 2.5 hours. The cast carves admirably through the slower scenes, and the humour is especially well-carried by Agrippa (Jack Richardson) and Enobarbus (Rachel Shrives), lending the first act a lightness that moves through the extensive exposition with ease. However, the tightness of the play unravels slightly towards the end, and the death scenes are largely underwhelming and lacking in tension.
Several jarring dramaturgical choices unfortunately prevented the production from presenting a clear, cohesive vision. The talk show device was insufficiently integrated, and exploration of the blurred lines between the personal and the political was let down by the seeming insignificance of the political context. Consequently, the intended sense of a pervasive media presence was never fully realised, despite the studio set design.
Though shifts in location were handled well, the production could also have benefited from more thoughtful blocking in general, with the final scenes especially requiring a greater degree of gravitas. The lighting was overly muted, obscuring faces at key points in the play where the audience most needed to maintain their connection with the characters.
The costumes were, however, carefully thought out. Cleopatra’s costume changes notably complement both the action of the play and the gradual deterioration of her will, and the different political groupings are easy to identify and keep track of due to their distinctive costuming.
In the end, looking at the wall of dead bodies crowding the front of the stage, I felt oddly soothed. The production bravely tackles the epic romance and political battles of the play, and the result – despite its limitations – is a gentle lament to the love story between Antony and Cleopatra.
Antony & Cleopatra is showing in the Guild Theatre at the University of Melbourne until 9 May, 2015. Tickets are available here: http://www.trybooking.com/HJML.
Photography: Ben Fon