Undoubtedly one of the most iconic women in history, Cleopatra is given new life in 2014 in Gareth Cadwallader’s playwriting debut. Yet, nestled in the Hope Theatre, London’s newest theatre dedicated to new writing, the serpent of old Nile writhes with considerably less fervour than we have come to expect. Gone are the blaring fanfares and heavy necklaces of yore, and in their place stands a rather waif-like woman who scrambles about the stage, twitching and snatching with childlike rashness. This startlingly bold deviation from the glowing goddess that is so celebrated by historians and theatre connoisseurs alike loses a lot of her uniquely magical appeal.
The plot cleverly weaves alongside the story of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and we are invited into Cleopatra’s domain as she plans her ascent up the ladder towards world domination. Calling on her slaves-cum-counsellors Charmian and Iras, she explains her desire to marry Caesar and thus sit comfortably alongside him as the world’s Queen. However, trouble comes in the form of Marcus Brutus who disapproves of the union and Cleopatra attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to seduce him into submission. Ever resourceful, she creates a back up plan, should Caesar be killed while away, and coincidentally Mark Antony arrives on the scene to embark on one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Cadwallader should be commended for his sheer audacity in tackling this pivotal period in Western culture. While this minimalist approach to an otherwise veiled and mysterious character provides a more accessible representation of Egypt’s last pharaoh, it fails to retain her capricious and grotesquely ostentatious nature. The cast of seven is fronted by Shelley Lang. Her bizarrely bird-like physicality and unforgivably hoarse vocal tone obscure any connections between herself and what should be the most recognisable of all queens. Likewise, Mark Edel-Hunt gives the supposed triple pillar of the world that is Mark Antony a clumsy and grossly chauvinistic air. Lang also appears much older than the 24 year old Cleopatra she represents which, although distracting in itself, grates against the otherwise youthful cast. The direction of the piece is wholly inappropriate for the snug space and the front row of the audience have to hug their knees on several occasions to allow the actors to move about. Thus ensues some awkward eye contact and mumbling that is at first endearing but very quickly becomes embarrassing.
For a debuting playwright, Cleopatra is arguably an unwise choice. It is clear that Cadwallader has an acute awareness of Egypt’s history at this time and his fondness for Cleopatra and her minions shines through. Yet the decision to strip her of both feminine wiles and focused ambition seems rather cruel.
This will sadly not be one of the well remembered odes to the daughter of Isis.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Written by Gareth Cadwallader
Directed by Mary Franklin
Performance date – Friday 10th January 2014