Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra – it is one of those defining images of an age of womanhood – of the sultry, dangerous femme fatale who's certain to consume, like a black widow spider, any man who falls into her web. It is an image, an ideal, that any actor playing the Egyptian Queen has to confront, deal with, and overcome, if she's to put her own stamp upon the role.
Frances Barber in the Globe's new Antony & Cleopatra takes to the challenge with a passion. No inch of flesh goes unwriggled, no sideways glance unsmouldered, no lascivious gesture unexercised, but she does all of this with such heart and enthusiasm that it never descends into parody. She's supported beautifully by her two key attendants – Charmian (Frances Thorburn), the young beauty learning from her queen's every move and Iras (Rhiannon Oliver), the plain foil and faintly motherly foil to both of them.
But what is a stage full of male actors – of the ruling Roman triumvirs, Antony, Octavius and Lepidus, and the upstart Pompey – who are deciding the fate of the entire new Roman empire, going to do to match this, to provide balance and matching masculine power to the evening? Neither they, Shakespeare, nor the director Dominic Dromgoole has found an answer to this challenge.
Jack Laskey manages an interesting, charistmatic interpretation of Octavius, the extremely bright but inexperienced young sprog finding his way as a ruler in a dangerous world, knowing too well he can't afford the complications of emotion of any kind. Lepidus is an adequate old drunk; Pompey's short, ringletted appearance adds a dash of piratical glamour.
But Nicholas Jones as Mark Antony — Cleopatra's lover and fellow-ruler, who proves himself inadequate on both levels — doesn't come anywhere near to meeting the dramatic challenge. He might be a formerly great man brought down by his middle-aged passion; he might be a man consumed by the great fire of lust. Instead, he's an addled, weak, vacillating character, vaguely aware that he's charting his own destruction without showing any sign of a will to intervene in the process.
It might be claimed that this is part of the political point. Shakespeare was undoubtedly depicting Rome as a fallen, debased state – one hopelessly departed from the glory days of the Republic. Citizens of goodwill, like Enobarbus and Dolabella, have no choice but to follow either feminine sensuality and weakness, or the raucous, mindless masculinity of the tavern, in which capacity to hold alcohol might prove a defining factor in ruling the world. But without a powerful Antony, even a horribly flawed one, the play is lacking, and Jones just doesn't have the stage presence or power to match Barber's.
We've come to expect real innovation, exciting staging, spectacular effects based on simple technology from the Globe, but this is a noticeably straight, even at times dull, production. The crowd is static, so often are the actors – a bit of fussing around with a hoist at the end can't cancel this out. That's not to say that this is a bad production – the verse production is generally classy; the use of music interesting, with the range of curiously shaped horns and drums providing sounds notably foreign to 21st-century ears; the costumes attractively lush. It is just that it lacks that "whow" factor we've come to expect from the Globe.
Of the current shows in rep at the Globe, Coriolanus chiefly features muscular machismo , Titus Andronicus gripping horror, and Cleopatra rampant female sexuality. That last is not, for this reviewer, quite enough to sustain three hours of theatre; viewers of other genders, or sexualities might, of course, have a different view.