Cleopatra’s Needle is the commanding centrepiece on the Minack stage this week for a long, rarely performed and perplexing Shakespearean tragedy that demands strong direction and eye-catching design.
Good then, that this band of professional actors from Another Way Theatre and their backstage team clearly have the passion and commitment to deliver a compelling Antony and Cleopatra.
Chris Chambers set out to direct the Surrey based company’s production with his wife in the lead role as the Queen of Egypt, and then his Antony pulled out, so he stepped in to the star role, which is pretty demanding to say the least. But, strikingly unlike the Roman, he knows what he wants, and unswervingly extracts it from this strong and experienced group of actors. He brought in Eleanor Chadwick to co-direct.
His stage designer Jill ‘Wiggy’ Wilson is no stranger to the Minack and convinces us with deft touches that we are in Alexandria, Rome and places in between, as the action takes us from Cleopatra’s sumptuous palace to tense summit meetings between Antony and Caesar, (Luke Walsh) Lepidus, (Robert Rowe) and Pompey (Andrew Mulquin) who all have empires to build.
The play’s focus is the unravelling of Antony’s ambition when he falls for Cleopatra. He is besotted, no doubt about that, but he needs to keep his eye on the ball. There are battles to fight, and he needs to keep Caesar sweet – the tragedy is, it is not going to work out, and the men around him know it, especially the Soothsayer (David Kay) and his best friend Enobarbus (Andrew Fitch). Others who witness the downfall are Maecenas (Dan Avery) Alexas (Glyn Williams) and Menas (Elliot Young).
The lively and rhythmic Middle Eastern music composed by Hussein Zahawy fits the play perfectly. There is a clever slo-mo sword fight and an inspired smoke-filled battle scene, using coloured flags to denote the sides, before Antony’s ultimately fatal decision to flee with the queen, “like a doting mallard” losing command and his reputation.
Cleopatra’s Needle is a triumph of design, looking as if it might have been standing on a Cornish cliff for well over the 2,000 years since Antony lost his heart to one of the world’s most renowned monarchs.
The Queen of the Nile is played by Nicky Chambers dressed in shimmering flowing gold and iridescent shades to match the peacock feathers that fan her throne. Costume designer Jean Hammond chooses fabrics fit for a queen, and her serving women (Elaine Hartley) who doubles as an exotically attired belly dancer and (Rebecca Livermore) who also movingly plays the role of Caesar’s beloved sister Octavia. The Roman men are generally dressed for the fight in sturdy leather armour, or plotting in white or scarlet togas.
One or two Shakespearean plays per season are part of the Minack tradition set down by founder Rowena Cade and this is one of the most challenging, so make sure you read the plot in the programme beforehand, if you don’t already know it, and you will be rewarded by a fine production.