“Aside from a couple of well-intentioned but clunky party scenes, there was no variation in pace from one scene to the next”
Gavin McAlinden’s production of Anthony & Cleopatra at Theatro Technis is the showcase production for the students at his weekly acting workshop, Acting Gymnasium, and this is very obviously a mixed ability student production. Michael Claff (Anthony) is clearly a regular, having frequently taken the lead in other productions, and makes a decent fist of it, but the majority of the other cast members struggled vocally, with diction and clarity, which meant that not only was the poetry lost, but frequently the narrative too. Although Gabriel Puscas (Enobarbus) moved with a certain charismatic ease, for instance, far too many of his lines were rushed, mumbled and impossible to distinguish. Too often, the language was sacrificed in moments of high emotion. This was problematic across the board, and particularly marred Hannah Luna’s performance as Cleopatra. This most tempestuous of Shakespeare’s heroines speaks some of her most extraordinary lines in rage and in grief, and we simply couldn’t make them out. In addition, the decision to dress her in a succession of differently coloured corsets did nothing to lend this performance the strength and sensuality it lacked. Nowhere in this production was there the sense of the enormous power at stake in this relationship, nor was it there in Caesar’s icy machinations.
There were some welcome moments of clarity provided by some of the actors in smaller roles – credit here to Emma Wilkinson Wright (Charmian), Anna Walden (Agrippa) and Ventidius (Brian Easty) – and the sound design (including James Jones’ original music) though occasionally heavy-handed, was pleasingly atmospheric throughout, but overall this was a slow evening, running half an hour over its advertised running time. Aside from a couple of well-intentioned but clunky party scenes, there was no variation in pace from one scene to the next, and the transitions were badly managed throughout, with far too much bare stage on show. The two courts were not sufficiently defined against one another, and the grandeur of Anthony and Cleopatra’s passion was nowhere to be found.
It left this reviewer with big unanswered questions, the dominant one being, ‘why tell this story now?’ Theatre is a scarce commodity at the moment, and every production needs to have something to say. What did the director want to say? What did he want his audience to find? As we stepped out into the night, we remained unenlightened.
“the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential”
Lockdown appears to be easing in many walks of life, but it is unfortunate that the theatre world, in particular, is still struggling to get back on its feet. The government announcement allowing indoor events is very welcome although there is still a fair bit of ground to cover. In the meantime, open-air theatre is stealing the spotlight, and a very fine example of this is the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival, set in the unique Roman Theatre of Verulamium just on the edge of St Albans. As part of the festival, Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is running in rep throughout August.
Whilst our theatres are nursing their wounds from the battle against the pandemic, outdoor theatre has another foe, too, in the English weather; and “Henry V” opened just as the heavens did. But mercifully the downpours showed some restraint for the crucial ninety minutes and rain didn’t stop play: the show must go on, and the true spirit of the cast thrives, matching the trumpet calls that herald Shakespeare’s historical text.
“Henry V” is an ambitious play. It is difficult to represent the great battles of Harfleur and, more importantly, of Agincourt. It relies heavily on the collective imagination of the audience, and here it is aided too by the individual imagination of director, Matthew Parker. Embracing the current restrictions, Parker presents the play as a rehearsal for a school production. The teachers and students have gathered together in the summer holidays to rework their production of “Henry V” that was presumably curtailed earlier in the school year. They have to alter the staging to make it socially distant and safe. Costumes can only be touched by the actor wearing them and no-one can share a prop – each cast member assigned different coloured tape to enforce this. The action is interrupted whenever actors get too close to each other. It is a clever way if incorporating the regulations into the performance itself.
The cast brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the classroom in recess where familiarity and authority have license to flirt with one another. The flipside, however, is that one is drawn to these characters more than to the Shakespearian characters they are portraying, and Shakespeare’s text plays second fiddle. The complexities of the subject, and the contrasting views on patriotism and warfare, do get swept aside by the occasional over-projection and caricature. Nevertheless, the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential. Felipe Pacheco and James Keningale stand out, playing seven or so characters between them; and Rachel Fenwick shines as the French King’s daughter, Katherine, especially during the iconic scene in which she attempts to improve her English.
But all in all, it is an ensemble piece that is refreshingly pacey and fizzes with energy. The electricity that seems to crackle form the stage is not just the early signs of the impending thunderstorm. The setting is stunning: an excavated Roman amphitheatre that is nearly two thousand years old. For over a millennia it was buried, but it lives to see the light of day. A fitting backdrop for one of the first productions to emerge since lockdown. The spirit of theatre cannot be dampened – by an invisible enemy nor by the English weather, and this feisty production of Henry V is testament to that spirit.