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Love, life and death in Egypt

A simple stage is set for the demise of a passionate love affair. Heather Neill explains

Antony and Cleopatra

By William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

From April 12 to October 14

Tel: 0870 609 1110

The famous love story of Antony and Cleopatra is, says director Gregory Doran, epic but also domestic: "I spend most of my time rehearsing with two, three, four, five people, but the story is played out against this huge panoply of international politics."

Antony and Cleopatra may be deeply in love, but they spend most of their time "bickering, being vile to each other. It's a co-dependent, deeply destructive, addictive relationship. It is the very flaws in these people which make us love them ... but both run countries, one (Antony) is responsible for half the known world and he's buggering about in Alexandria."

The distinction between Rome and Egypt (and by extension between reason and emotion; between public responsibility and private indulgence) will be simply shown on the Swan stage. Doran is avoiding opulent scene-setting, instead showing contrasts by costume and behaviour, "the Romans perpendicular. The Egyptians horizontal", he jokes.

Doran says that it is generally seen as Cleopatra's play, "but Antony is a magnificent part, a detailed psychological study of disintegration. There are lots of references to his emptiness, as opposed to Caesar's fullness, and there is an amazing moment when he comes in determined to kill Cleopatra and starts looking at the clouds."

Antony notes their changeable nature and likens himself to them. "It's as if he no longer knows how to play Antony", says Doran.

Still determined to be a noble Roman, he attempts to kill himself and bungles that too. Cleopatra "changes moment by moment, but she is always a politician as well as a lover."

Both Antony and Cleopatra are dramatic, playing out their roles for whatever audience is available, until she stage-manages her death scene as a glorious queen. The two title roles share with Enobarbus and Octavius two-thirds of the lines. Octavius, the ultimate Roman, has "a terrifying rigour", but he also has several passionate outbursts about Antony. "He clearly worships the man that Antony was. The age difference is important.

The idealism and rigour of youth will not allow of fallibility. It's a well-balanced play with these four."

Enobarbus, meanwhile, "is a great invention of Shakespeare's". He is referred to in Shakespeare's source, Plutarch, but developed into a character riven by conflict, whether to be loyal or defect like everybody else. Doran says he reflects our reaction, watching what happens "with great pain, with compassion and horror at what Antony does".

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