The story of Antony and Cleopatra is excellently conveyed by Bell Shakespeare Company in their first production for the 2018 season. Despite a muted contemporary-styled setting that seems to look either like a bland but comfortable living room in the suburbs or a nondescript meeting room in some inner city hotel reception room, most of the characters’ passions, anxieties and desires can be easily identified by the audience.

The set is awash with beige and pastel colours, net curtains envelope the set during change of scenes which serve to display intertitles, and four chairs and an ottoman are the only items that fill the small space. It is the language and movement that is the focus.

This clarity of characterisation is due to the thoroughness with which director Peter Evans orchestrates such a mammoth task of breathing new life into one of the most famous love stories of the western world. Evans and his team use this circular and muted set and keep it much the same way even when we travel back and forth from Egypt to Rome many times during the play which relies on the audience working hard. The idea, as expressed in the program notes, was to convey the sense of smallness, that there is not enough room in the world for the love the two lovers feel for each other nor is there any room for the huge power play going on between the warring factions of the Roman Empire. Antony and Cleopatra’s love is confined and contained. It is mature and raw. It is genuine and emotionally charged. The actors are successful in portraying this.

The main attraction is of course the two lovers, played by Logie and AFI award-winning actor Catherine McClements and the very watchable Johnny Carr. This coupling has the requisite chemistry and fire in their eyes for each other. The celebrity couple is presented like a well-heeled hipster couple living in an inner Melbourne suburb which is an interesting creative decision. Costume designer, Anna Cordingley, has Cleopatra sporting a black, tailored jacket with flared bottoms. A white shirt gives off a sense of formality and elegance and large, unbuttoned cuffs gives a sense of the regal. Subtly, large silver dangly earrings also send a message of affluence that are definitely on trend for anyone with a high status like the Queen of Egypt living in a Melbourne suburb.

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Carr is formally dressed and expresses and air of importance in his dark Ted Baker suit and contrasting white shirt. His facial hair is a prominent feature. There is a lot of it; thick, long beard and a head of long, black wavering hair. There were many moments though where facial expressions were masked by this cascading flow of hair. Carr has Antony bouncing around agitated with the problems and strategizing for many of his scenes. He portrays Antony as deeply moved and aroused when intimate with his Cleopatra.

McClements displays her knowledge and skill in performing Shakespeare. Hers is a very natural, emotional and flighty Cleopatra. Her relationship with her lady in waiting, Charmian, (Zindzi Okenyo) is tender and respectful. Okenyo’s intention to avoid playing Charmian as ‘just another black servant’ is certainly achieved. Okenyo’s Charmian is sassy, measured and perceptive. Her mind meets Cleopatra’s at every turn. Charmian rarely leaves the stage, acting like a Greek chorus, always present, always in deep thought and free to advise. Okenyo’s acting skills are just as beguiling as her physical beauty.

Ray Chong Nee is also wonderfully cast as Enobarbus. He nails the famous barge speech describing Cleopatra’s beauty, ‘For her own person/It beggar’d all description’. He does this with a sonorous and adoring tone. He displays Enobarbus’ nous and cunning. Lucy Goleby is perfect in her portrayal of Pompey. Her steadfast conviction and courage in the face of enemies is shown and she is suitably amusing in the wild party scene after negotiations have been finalized with the triumvirate from Rome.

This performance succeeds so much due to its ability to show how outrageous most of these Shakespeare’s characters are. As a result of Antony and Cleopatra’s mature ages, the many facets of love are portrayed – it is unkind, blissful and forgetful among many other things. The images are big. The emotion is excessive. The hopes are high. This is perhaps why this play is so complex and admired by contemporary audiences and why actors have so much fun showing the audacious natures of their characters. The cast members do revel in each of their character’s audacity. The much anticipated climactic ending even more poignant as a result this. Surprisingly, this play has rarely been performed here over the last couple of decades. All the more reason to see it.

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