Age cannot wither
John Nathan on a powerfully psychological Antony and Cleopatra and a claustrophobic production of a Henrik Ibsen classic
Antony and Cleopatra Novello, London WC2
In Gregory Doran’s terrific RSC production, Patrick Stewart’s Antony is every inch the Roman patrician who flailed and hacked his way to victory. But what fascinates about Antony is not his strength but his weakness — for women in general and Cleopatra in particular, played by a mercurial Harriet Walter.
Walter’s volatile queen of Egypt need only feign a little sorrow or pucker up with doe-eyed vulnerability for the iron-will of Rome’s greatest general to melt like soft butter.
What fascinates about Cleopatra is her permanent state of self-indulgence — with every whim acted upon without a care of the consequences. In Walter’s version, the flip side of this adolescent condition is that Cleopatra is all too aware of her maturity. And tired of her posturing, Walter’s monarch temperamentally throws down her wig, revealing cropped hair.
Crucially, Stewart’s Antony and Walter’s Cleopatra seem perfect for each other. They are two towering but mutually destructive egos. And when Stewart’s Antony hears that Cleopatra is alive, having just impaled himself on his own sword at the false news that she is dead, he laughs in rueful recognition of the inevitable.
The two central performances are superbly supported by Ken Bones’s watchful Enobarbus, Peter de Jersey’s powerful Pompeius and, in particular, John Hopkins’s highlystrung Caesar, who steals most scenes in which he is present.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design echoes the geo-political stakes by placing the action against the background of a map of the known world. (Tel: 020 7437 4370) Ghosts The Gate, London W11
Like Chekhov and O’Neill, Ibsen was all too aware of how society’s conventions trap lives. Reflecting this, Lez Brotherston’s design reduces The Gate’s tiny stage still further by setting Ibsen’s claustrophobic drama in a cell-sized revolving wooden room.
The author’s target was the repressive conventions of his day, which viewed loving and loveless marriages as equally sacrosanct, women as second-class citizens and male authority as paramount.
This last is embodied by Finbar Lynch’s proudly ignorant Pastor Manders who views books as pollutants of the mind. He is the guest of widow Mrs Alving (Niamh Cusack) whose ill painter son Osvald (Christian Coulson) has returned home to live and, it emerges, die.
Where the politics outraged nineteenth century audiences, it is the peeling back of family secrets that grips their modern counterparts.
Anna Mackmin’s uninterrupted 90-minute production is propelled at breakneck speed by Amelia Bullmore’s condensed version of the play. If there is a down side to Bullmore’s slashing the drama’s longueurs and speeches, it is that the characters are denied the space to absorb events. But the excellent cast, led by a superb Cusack, cope well with the unseemly haste. Sarah Smart’s breathless maid Regine and Paul Copley as her abusive father Estrand also deserve a mention. (Tel: 020 7229 0706) Gertrude’s Secret New End, London NW3
Imported from the King’s Head, the New End has breathed new life into Benedick West’s series of 10 short monologues.
West’s characters each have their own tragedy to tell. We kick off with romantic Maureen’s love for Derek, which emerges as a stalker’s obsession; a depressive worries about botching his suicide; a gossipy cleaner is a modern Mrs Malaprop.
West’s characters are written and, under Andrew Loudon’s direction, acted well enough to avoid caricature — but only just.
And by the time you get to Prunella Scales’s lonely, meek Gertrude of the title, the production’s limited virtue — that of a mere showcase for actors — is well established. (Tel: 0870 033 2733 )
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatraat the Novello