Of men and war;Setplay;Theatre

25th June 1999 at 01:00
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. By William Shakespeare. The Globe

Giles Block is directing Mark Rylance in his most controversial role to date - Cleopatra. It's an experiment, he says, "that has to be made" at the Globe. This is not the first all-male production there, but the female parts have previously been played by much younger men and in less showy roles.

Block hopes that people will be led by the power of the story and forget the casting. The play is, he says, "full of confusion and the unexpected. The heart of the play is the clash between private and public" - the choice two world leaders make between duty and passion.

He discussed this with some sixth formers at a south London school, and was surprised to find them criticising the lack of moral judgement in those they thought should have been more committed to the responsibilities they had sought. But Block says he thinks Shakespeare is more romantic than sixth formers, and that Antony and Cleopatra would have been better off relinquishing power in favour of a life together - something Antony realises too late.

Plutarch, the play's main source, is snide about Antony. Block says "he thinks he can have his cake and eat it", trying to maintain his position in Egypt as well as Rome.

Block sees Cleopatra as an instinctive character, acting "in the moment", which explains her behaviour at the Battle of Actium when she flees with her forces, leaving Antony to flounder.

For both, death is their finest moment. Cleopatra transforms herself into a gilded icon: "She becomes a goddess."

Block worked with the same cast on Julius Caesar this season and sees some continuity in the character of Antony between that earlier play and this one, written about 1607. "The wildness is there already, the party boy, his generosity of spirit and his ruthlessness and there are hints of antagonism between him and Octavius, which becomes the main thrust of the political life of Antony and Cleopatra."

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