No villain, no catharsis: Timothy Ramsden previews a unique Shakespearean tragedy
Antony Cleopatra By William Shakespeare Manchester Royal Exchange
February 23-April 9
Tel: 0161 833 9833
This is the Queen who had been a role model for Elizabeth I (both were women alone keeping a world of men in order). "She is sexually potent, yet petty, but can make you believe she's the incarnation of a goddess. She's terrifying but charismatic." It is under this influence, Murray says, Antony behaves irrationally and stupidly.
Yet the pair begin behaving appallingly to each other; amid their "bickering and play-acting there's no real indication they love each other until Antony leaves for Rome". Left alone it becomes clear Cleopatra is besotted with him, as she humiliates herself questioning messengers about Octavia, whom Antony has married out of convenience.
The battles, with their different reflections on the lovers' relationship (she abandons him, they win after a night of love, he wrongly accuses her of letting him down), are all important says Murray. He picks out Cleopatra's desertion of Antony at Actium as a key moment. "She sees him as a warrior, doing the job he is very good at. She can't equal him so she turns and goes." In this great love story, the lovers have only one scene together alone, "where he screams and shouts at her after he has lost his last battle".
Like love, betrayal runs through the play. People betray those they love.
Murray sees the loyal officer Enobarbus as the Fool to Antony's Lear, speaking what Antony needs to know to clarify his mind. It is important the famous, lyrical "barge" speech does not compromise Enobarbus' soldierly quality - the Romans' first meeting with Cleopatra was unforgettable, when Enobarbus fell in love with Cleopatra (he is the one who repeatedly says Antony will never leave her), and he uses the only words that will express the experience, not deliberate poetry. Yet this soldier sees in Antony's behaviour the risk of the Roman Empire disintegrating, so betrays Antony and, in the process, himself.
For all the glories of love, Murray understands Octavius Caesar's more political point of view as he sees men being killed in unnecessary battles.
"He's a very, very good leader. Suddenly he sees his admired mentor go AWOL. He calls him back (to Rome) gives him the sister he loves as a wife and gets kicked in the teeth."