Sussex Playwrights Reviews: Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and Cleopatra
Unmasked Theatre
Adapted and Directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill

The director notes that ‘the true scandal of the 1963 John Profumo/Christine Keeler affair was the horrific way in which it was reported.’

In Unmasked’s intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, politicians Octavius Ceaser [sic], Mark Anthony and Sextus Pompey compete for supremacy in a fantasy country with a 60s England vibe. The men are also vying for the attentions of Cleopatra the Egypt nightclub artiste, while reporters circle ready to pounce.

Fleeting BBC English news reports, jazzy Nina Simone tracks and the constant smell of smoke conjure up a post-war pre-hippie era of druggy parties and the Pill, where characters slip in and out of Shakespeare’s language and 1960s chat.

In this re-imagining, Shakespeare’s powerful royal woman is gone; here Jessica Flood’s Cleopatra is a fragile, brittle and down-market girl, a peripheral figure marginalised and manipulated by smooth politicians and their agendas.

As Cleopatra’s handmaidens the Jewels of the Nile, Olivia Sewell, Lucy Tebb and Claudia Realer plus Pip O’Neill’s sultry solo vocals are a great supporting act, performing fun Cabaret-style musical numbers more sweet than sleaze, then swirling into mobs of baying reporters and jeering politicians, with Paddy Hall the amused MC stirring it all up.

The production’s at its best in these press and party scenes and the energetic in-the-House crowd set pieces, as actors use every inch of the space, spilling off the stage and into the audience. Action on two levels adds visual interest to the plain black box, but it’s cramped – that table and chair on the floor are an obstacle for audience coming in, and actors moving about, and the chair and scene changing business rather slows the action.

I loved the fights, always great visceral impact in a close up space, and here the testosterone-fuelled tension between the men ramps up with a wrestling scene and a well-landed punch on the nose.

Standout turns from Ben Baeza as Enobarbus, assured man about town til it all goes wrong, Liam Scott’s passionate Mark Anthony and Charlotte Tayler’s slide as Lepidus from poised, manipulative politician to raddled drunk.

Natasha Stiven is a quietly scheming Pompey, Tyrone Purling an ascetic and disdainful Ceaser and Francesca Peplow radiates dutiful purity as his sister Octavia meekly married off to Mark Anthony.

The play’s inevitably tragic climax comes as the reporter pack clamour to get at Cleopatra. Yet we couldn’t really see her final moments, masked as she was by the purple beanbag – perhaps a stark empty stage would throw more focus on her lonely demise. Rethink the chairs, clear the entrance and exits for pace and movement and this piece would reach the slicker more assured level it promises.

Philippa Hammond

Rialto Theatre, May 8,9,17,18,19,20 details