The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season takes a much welcome detour through the Nile in Iqbal Khan’s sizzling production of Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare’s tragedy takes place right after Julius Caesar, and rather than attend to matters in Rome, Marc Antony (Anthony Byrne) has chosen to stay in Egypt with the object of his affections, Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra (Josette Simon). The two’s intense romance leads them to forsake their duty which eventually leads them to their tragic end.

One of the greatest strengths of Khan’s production is its ability to tell the story of the two lovers and their internal conflict through the staging of the main settings of Rome and Egypt. Rome’s hyper-masculinity and constant talk of war pales in comparison to the opulent warmly lit cocoon of hedonism and safety that is Egypt. Khan makes it very easy to see how anyone, even Rome’s greatest fighter, could get stuck there. Credit for this should also go to award-winning songstress Laura Mvula’s score that perfectly encapsulates the arresting beckon of Cleopatra and Egypt.

Back in Rome, Ben Allen’s Octavian is superb, boyish, overly emotional and not quite fitting into his new role as leader despite his best efforts. Anthony Byrne’s Marc Antony is also notable, exuding subdued gravitas that makes him convincingly worthy of the praise of the soldiers around him and the affections of the Serpent of the Nile. The contrast between Octavian’s shaky command and Antony’s sureness makes the outcome of their battle even more surprising. However, the effect of Antony’s passion on his judgement is a little too understated, though the chemistry between he and Cleopatra is truly palpable.

It is Simon who truly steals the show, oozing sensuality and regal confidence, throwing jealous tantrums, paralysed by love’s grief; through the whole performance Simon continues to surprise. Shakespeare’s characterisation of Cleopatra can be criticised for understating her strategic mind, however in Simon you see the deviousness beneath the woman consumed by love. Simon’s Cleopatra suppresses her grief and anger in an instant to don her public face and is able to easily command the respect of those around her. The volatile and sometimes childish nature of Cleopatra makes it easy for her to become a potential cartoon, but Simon is both the quintessential woman in love scrounging for facts about her lover’s partner and the aloof royal whose class and confidence eludes the majority of us.

Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra seduces the audience with its setting, fantastic dramatisation and haunting score, all of which beg the audience to spend just a little more time in Egypt and a little more time with the tragic lovers.

Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the Barbican until 20 January 2018

Photo: Helen Maybanks