In the third of Shakespeare's Globe productions in the series 'Edges of Rome' we learn yet more of the ancient, bloody and convoluted history of the Roman Empire.
The story picks up after the death of Julius Caesar, when Rome is run by the triumverate of Octavius Caesar (played lean and moody by Jack Laskey), Lepidus (a laid-back drunk played by John Bett) and Mark Antony (the popular hero, played in a rather avuncular way by Nicholas Jones).
However, Antony's heroism is weakened by his seduction of Cleopatra and his continued absence in Egypt. Frances Barber plays the wily, willful, scheming heroine with great verve and style, able to seduce in one moment and become a shrieking fishwife the next. When to strengthen Rome Antony is persuaded to marry Caesar's sister, the godly but 'wholly cold' Octavia (Pascale Burgess), Cleopatra is distraught.
I found it quite hard to follow all the shifting allegiances, and subsequent battles but enjoyed the language, picking out phrases like 'Caesar being green 'in his salad days' and Cleopatra described as an 'Egyptian dish'. The music which accompanies the play is cleverly in the usual Globe style, but made particular by the use of harps and pigorns (shawm-type instruments), while the dancing owes a lot to Greek line dances. The singing has a plaintive but lusty Arabic note and I was not surprised to find Belinda Sykes of Joglaresa listed as composer of the Vocal Music.
The dramatic action is leavened with comic words from soothsayers and clowns but is pretty remorseless. Cleopatra tricks Antony into believing her dead. He, distraught, falls on his sword several times, but not dying until he has said farewell to Cleopatra in the next scene. A 'rural fellow' brings a basket of figs concealing a snake. Cleopatra places the asp to her breast, is bitten and dies, and is borne away to be buried next to Antony.
Overall I felt this play to be more subdued than Coriolanus and certainly less blood-stained than Titus Andronicus. I miss the clarity of line and plot which Mark Rylance brought to the plays but Cleopatra's fiery verve and energy certainly carry the production.