A YouTube video posted by the Royal Shakespeare Company advertises, with calm futility, a 2010 production of Antony and Cleopatra. The video’s description sticks in my mind – “Two charismatic and powerful leaders find in each other an irresistible and yet unattainable.” Ignoring the curious omission of a final object for the sentence (unattainable what?), surely the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is that their charisma is, in fact, signally on the wane – that they are aging and selfish and their charms have ceased to affect any but each other, to the extent that they are capable of wielding them productively in the first place. I’m tempted to think that Shaw was right after all, that Caesar and Cleopatra is the better story, catching the conqueror, despite his age, at the peak of his power and genius. By comparison, the spectacle of Antony’s sordid decline is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Shakespeare’s task is to take the less interesting tale and make it shine, which he does through the beauty of his language and the penetrating skill of his characterizations.
The Argo recording is particularly well done, despite what appears to be an irremediable error in casting. Richard Johnson is too young for Antony and Irene Worth too solidly imperious for Cleopatra. Where will Worth find the right wavelength of sensuality to make her seduction of Antony believable and put her in the same gallery as Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, or even Caedmon’s Pamela Brown? The whole enterprise seems doomed to play out like a Plutarchian pre-write of Elizabeth and Essex. But as it happens, this is one of the better recordings in the Argo series, perhaps the best audio A&C altogether. Johnson’s energetic reading of Antony gives the old soldier a masculine energy that drives the character forward. Rather than the usual tedious spectacle of a drunken has-been cycling between rage and self-pity, it becomes more tragically that of a man helplessly propelled in the wrong direction by a series of bad decisions. This effect is aided by Robert Eddison’s Octavian, haughty, hollow-voiced and fussy.. For once, Antony is clearly the better man, sharper and stronger, the young Caesar no more than a lucky and ruthless mediocrity.
Indeed, Octavian is the first among equals in that respect. By choice or accident, the Romans on this recording are blunt, stiff and stupid. By contrast, Irene Worth’s Cleopatra, though anything but serpentine, is cerebral, witty and forceful (in addition to being superbly executed – this is one of the top 5 performances in the entire series). Director Rylands has created a convincing alternative to the traditional presentation of a spent Antony besotted by self-indulgence – here he is the last surviving member of the Roman Republic’s elite, the brilliant but self-destructive array that included Cicero, Cato and Julius Caesar himself. Only now, after the republic’s apocalyptic fall, he finds himself attracted to the last great character of the age – the brilliant ruler of the Egyptian kingdom, Cleopatra not as a flight from responsibility so much as from the rapidly congealing hegemony of lesser spirits.
I should mention an excellent Enobarbus from Patrick Wymark, who combines the soldierly quality of the character with a firm nod toward its comic potential and an awareness of the poetry of the role that makes his famous description of Cleopatra believably assigned.
Antony and Cleopatra with Richard Johnson, Irene Worth, Robert Eddison and Patrick Wymark.