Antony & Cleopatra, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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Antony & Cleopatra is always a big undertaking. The play is an uneasy mix of love and war, it requires a wide variety of settings, scenes and textures and it is usual that a choice is made to make it either bellicose or romantic. Simon Godwin has made the brave decision to have it both ways. The talent and apparatus that are at his disposal at the Olivier theatre allow him to pull it off triumphantly.

The cast is high quality and on top form. The set and choreography are stars in their own right. Hildegard Bechtler, set designer and Evie Gurney, costume designer do a wonderful job.  I doubt that it would be possible to do the transformations from opulent Alexandria, through Roman war rooms to topside ship decks, with such efficiency on any other stage. It is beautifully done and gives the piece a cinematic quality that it is uncommon to see in the theatre. they have lavished money, care and attention to detail on this production and it has not gone to waste. The costumes are sumptuous, Cleopatra really does dress like a queen.

The huge change in ambience between the military settings and the romantic ones make it easy to see the dichotomy that Antony faces between duty and desire. He begins the play lounging by the pool but it not long before he is army fatigues. Ralph Fiennes plays Antony with a hint of midlife crisis, but when he is with Cleopatra there is never any doubt of his love for her. The chemistry between them is palpable, they are sultry and sensual, the perfect star crossed couple. Sophie Okonedo is every inch the Egyptian Queen, expecting adoration and receiving it; sharp and soft,  petulant and magnanimous, veering between vulnerable and dangerous. She owned the role, it feels like the part she was born to play.

The acting throughout is very good, Tim McMullan is excellent as Enobarbus. Hannah Morrish brings out the role of Octavia well, we see she is poorly used by Caesar as well as Antony, but takes what slight revenge she can. Fisayo Akinade is funny and sad as Eros, Antony’s freed slave.

Antony & Cleopatra is three and a half hours long, however there are a couple of light and funny scenes and director, Simon Godwin, makes good use of these to give relief from the tension and high drama. The ending of this play is often difficult to stage, but here it is done in a very authentic manner. There is a glimmer of compassion to the finale of  this play, that is not often there in Shakespearean tragedy. A word of warning to those who suffer from ophidiophobia – you may wish to get seats a little way back from the stage.

Everything about this show oozes high production values, right down to the programme, which has copious information about the background to the play. This is exactly the type of production that gives the National Theatre its worldwide renown.

Taster Classes at the City Lit, Keeley Street WC2.

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The City Lit is an adult education college situated in the heart of London’s West End. It has a huge number and variety of classes. Twice a year, usually in April and September, they have open days, where prospective students can visit the college, to see what it is like and to discover whether City Lit has anything to offer them.

During these open days they also host over 100 different Taster classes, so one can see what the course is like. Some of these are free, the rest cost either £5 or £10. Examples of taster lessons are: History, Discover Spanish, Adult Ballet, Stand Up Comedy, WordPress, An Introduction to Art and Architecture in Persia, Piano for Absolute Beginners, Screen Printing….. They even have a number of magical mystery courses where the student is not told what they will study until after they arrive in the classroom.

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Over the course of past two sets of Open Days, I have attended four of the Taster classes and have enjoyed them immensely. This was really my introduction to the phenomenon of education as entertainment. The four classes that I took were: Introduction to Arabic, WordPress, a brief overview, Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and Curious – blue which is one of the mystery lessons.

The Arabic gave a basic overview of how the language works, we did not really get any insight into the alphabet or written Arabic, and by the end of the lesson we were all able to introduce ourselves, say where we were from and make the general opening conversation pleasantries. This is certainly enough for one to be able to know whether taking the full term class is something that would be of interest.

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WordPress was much more practical and the classroom had many very up-to-date PCs. By the end of the lesson everyone in the class has set up their own WordPress account,  made a webpage with text, pictures, video and sound. The computer courses are often single unit workshops to work on a specific programme or platform. The taster would be enough to inform you whether the medium would be constructive in your business or life.

Homer was a much more relaxed affair. An informative discourse, telling the story of his epic poems, the time in which they were written and a chat about why they have remained of interest for such a long period of time. City Lit has a large selection of humanities and social science classes and this would be a good test of whether this kind of course might be what would be of interest.

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The Curious Blue course, the mystery course, was the busiest of all the classes that I tried. It surprised me that for so many people that it was not important what class they attended, it was more about the enjoyment of taking part. It turned out that the course was an introduction to Latin. The class was fun and very informative, we learned almost as much about English and language structure in general as we did about Latin.

There is a great deal of camaraderie in learning and I interacted with many people over the series of lectures – all of them in a positive way. Everybody I spoke to was having an enjoyable time and many were learning about themselves as well as their chosen subjects. One person I chatted to had taken the “Piano for Absolute Beginners” taster course and was amazed at his ability to play the chorus of “Ode to Joy” by the time the class was over. A lady I spoke to in the Latin class had signed up for the “Stand Up Comedy” course because she had taken the taster course and enjoyed it so much.

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City Lit’s open days were, for me, a truly eye opening adventure. I enjoyed them thoroughly. I had forgotten that learning was such a positive experience, the building was buzzing with excited chatter. I recommend them heartily and I know that I will be looking out for the dates of their open days and taster classes in the coming years!

 
 

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!