Oh what a sexy war!;Set play;Theatre

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Antony and Cleopatra. Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Stratford-upon-Avon.

Sex, politics and post-modernism. These are the energies that drive Steven Pimlott's intermittently engaging production of Shakespeare's dramatisation of the clash of Egyptian and Roman values. All three pose fascinating challenges to school parties.

Pimlott is explicit on the sexual relationship between the mature lovers. Alan Bates' grizzled Antony simply cannot keep his hands off Frances de la Tour's leggy Cleopatra. The opening scene isn't just in your face, it's in your groin. Bates may act as if he has a permanent hangover, but you are invited to note his sexual prowess. Octavia is heavily pregnant within moments of their marriage.

De la Tour's gaunt looks convincingly convey a Cleopatra "wrinkled deep in time", but she exudes sexual desire. She wraps herself around Antony, greets every messenger with coquettish flirting, and in one scene kisses the entire Roman army. Her resonant voice and giddy good moods make her the success of the production.

Pimlott's staging of politics is equally unequivocal. Guy Henry's Octavius is the quintessential manipulator. Dressed in a Victorian frock coat, he leans forward, listening intently to each character, visibly calculating how he can use the exchange to his advantage. Compared with him, Bates' bumbling Antony is a born loser. Can students believe that this out-of-his-depth Roman was ever "the triple pillar of the world"?

The post-modern nature of the production, the rejection of coherence and realism, presents students with their greatest challenge. Today's audiences are familiar with mixing periods, and here cigarettes, jazz and 1920s flappers share equal place with swords and armour. The realist world Pimlott constructs at the beginning disappears, and a kind of expressionism takes over.

That shift of theatrical style is most vividly seen in solutions to the very practical problem: how do you get dead bodies off stage? And how do Cleopatra and her women draw Antony up into the monument? In both cases, Pimlott's staging is surprising and will certainly provoke student argument.

But the clearest help toteachers is the stage design. ask your students what is the function of the three huge mirrors that frame and reflect the action. You' ll get a dozen different answers, and discussion of each will get students closer to the heart of the play.

Rex Gibson

Tickets: 01789 295623

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