Celebrities of ancient Rome

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. Shakespeare's Globe, London. In rep from June 25 until October. Tel: 020 7401 9919. www.shakespeares-globe.org

Shakespeare's middle-aged love story offers poetic and comical riches.

Heather Neill reports

Dominic Dromgoole's first season as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe is entitled The Edges of Rome. Antony and Cleopatra will be the third production, joining Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus in repertory. It is a favourite of Dromgoole, for its poetry and also for its subject matter, a middle-aged love story. He sees Antony and Cleopatra as two raddled, sexually experienced people who strive for mythic status.

"One of the most remarkable things about the play is the sheer willpower and effort they put into being Antony and Cleopatra, to being beyond human, people of grace whose stories are exemplary to other people.

To watch that continual effort, all the time undermined by tawdry, comic life is moving, not because you are watching two mad people make themselves celebrities - demigods - but because it's a paradigm of what we do in all our lives: we make the effort to be human, to be better, upright, dignified, but they do it on a grand, heroic scale."

While acknowledging that these two people have immense importance in political terms, Dromgoole says that it is the personal, domestic side of their story which interests him most. "Their megalomania is extraordinary.

You can't take the politics away - everything they do has consequences - but it is what they are trying to do as human beings that is of more interest." The pair are "always in performance".

They are, in fact, alone together only once, for a short time in Act IV and it's a disaster. "They shout at each other. It's explosive and frightening.

They need an audience to make themselves be Antony and be Cleopatra. She is rather like (Queen) Elizabeth in her later life - although the play was written some four years after Elizabeth's death - in the way she puts her charisma on, makes herself extraordinary. Shakespeare would have had an insight into that, the way Elizabeth wigged herself up and made herself beautiful when she was an elderly lady in a state of decay."

There is pathos in Antony's botched suicide, but, says Dromgoole, "it's also richly comical: he tries to get his servant Eros to do it - he doesn't; he tries to do it to himself - he misses; he asks five other people to kill him and they all refuse. It's richly ridiculous. There is a tension between the massive life-force in him, wanting to stay in the world, competing with the Roman sense of honour. Shakespeare wants there to be so much comedy and mess around Antony at this moment that we have to admire his efforts to be heroic. He goes out in the end with good grace.

"Cleopatra does incredibly well; she manages to turn herself into a goddess, consciously like Isis, and to speak with such grace, such poetry, such humanity, such richness and warmth. She takes the play into a different dimension. She is histrionic, but at the same time she's also magnificent."

* To hear Dominic Dromgoole talking about Antony and Cleopatra and the Globe, visit www.theatrevoice.com and click on Listen Now.

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