Peter Hall's `Antony and Cleopatra' makes a hit in London

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It is a production that shatters stereotypes - a stage version erasing any lingering celluloid images of sinuous Elizabeth Taylor and the de rigueur twining snakes. Britain's National Theatre's first-ever production of ``Antony and Cleopatra'' is reinvigorating Shakespeare's classic, if often clich'ed, tragedy. The result is a remarkably fresh and surprisingly faithful interpretation of the story of those middle-aged lovers whose romantic wrestlings beside the Nile rocked both Roman and Egyptian empires.

Under Peter Hall's utterly confident direction, including the odd but inspired casting of Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in the title roles, this ``Antony and Cleopatra'' is one of the most talked about - and hardest to get tickets for - openings of the current London season.

Local critics have labeled the clean-lined and potent production Mr. Hall's finest Shakespeare since his momentous ``The War of the Roses'' nearly 25 years ago. Dench's unconventional (in terms of age and appearance) but wholly convincing Cleopatra has been dubbed the most commanding since Dame Peggy Ashcroft's. For Hopkins, it is his second stellar Shakespearean role in a season already ignited by his high-voltage ``King Lear.'' For tourists, it is a must-see. (The production runs through the summer.)

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The production is a triumph of directorial concept. In Hall's staging of this round robin of Roman sexual politics, the politics matter as much as, if not more than, the sex. Eschewing the usual fun-in-the-Egyptian-sun sensibility so easily applied to lesser productions, Hall has stripped this ``Antony and Cleopatra'' to its textual bones. And good bones they prove to be. Although often regarded as an elusive and difficult-to-stage ``reader's play,'' this ``Antony and Cleopatra'' ripples with muscular characterizations devoid of vulgarity and burnished with refreshingly lucid staging.

Hall's concept is served at every turn by the action on stage. From the production's opening moments in the cavernous Olivier Theatre, Alison Chitty's blood-red Egyptian set - crumbling walls and leaping shadows - evokes both a classical and Jacobean world appropriate to the play's baroque passions. A visual locus for the play's motifs of lust and death, it also serves as a richly textured backdrop for that fierce political interplay among characters who stood at a watershed in history, when the world verged on the brink of Christianity and centuries of peace.

If Hall has chosen to reveal the bone and sinew of Roman empire politics lying at the heart of the text, then it is up to his cast to flesh them out on stage. And the fine ensemble assembled here - from the head-tossing, tempestuous Charmian (Miranda Foster) to the well-chilled Octavia (Sally Dexter) - forms a formidable backdrop to a quartet of standout individual performances.

Tim Piggot-Smith's Octavius, Antony's political rival, is a cold and competent ruler who will usher in a veritable ice age of reason. He shrinks from human contact and wears a perpetual sneer, along with his blue-tinged robes. His unctuous ``The time of universal peace is near'' resounds with chilling foreboding.

Conversely, Michael Bryant as Enobarbus, Antony's chief ally, gives a brillant portrayal of warmhearted rationalism. As the one moral constant amid the play's surging flood-tide of emotions, Enobarbus carries his stability - in the form of humor and humanity - with him. Indeed, Mr. Bryant nearly steals every scene into which he enters. His famous and oft-quoted description of Cleopatra, ``Age cannot wither her...,'' is spoken here with riveting immediacy.

But it is ultimately up to Hopkins and Dench to illuminate the deeply recessed facets of this difficult tragedy. And these two stars create a dazzling light show: an expert highlighting of the hubristic side of their characters with a gentle beam of humanity. Theirs is a passion ignited less by physical attachment than a devotion born out of mature character. Hopkins and Dench are no starry-eyed, star-crossed lovers, but consenting adults brought down by their own natures.

If Antony's attitude towards Cleopatra verges on the avuncular rather than the lusty - chucking her under the chin and grasping her in amiable bear hugs - it is simply an extension of his character, an inexhaustible generosity of spirit that contrasts sharply with Cleopatra's grasping possessiveness. In the twilight of his career, this Antony is wholly known to himself, be it on the battlefield or in his bedside manner. He characteristically sends treasure to Enobarbus even after the latter's defection. As Antony says, ``If I lose my honor, I lose myself.''

Against this pragmatism, Dench's Cleopatra rages. Although a physically unlikely candidate for the role, Dench more than compensates for her lack of natural sinuousness with an infectious, vigorous performance that puts to rest any preconceived concepts of the Queen of the Nile. With her cascading curls, jangling bracelets, and hip-thrusting walk, Dench gives full vent to her character's galloping Mediterranean passions. This Cleopatra plays her subjects like yo-yos, reeling them in, then pushing, even slugging, them out of the way. She is a woman who has all she wants - except that which she wants most - Antony.

If such impulsive coquetries dominate the play's first half, Dench's stillness in the second bespeaks her impressive growth of character in the wake of Antony's suicide - a dignity born of that ``desolation that does begin to make a better life.'' And Dench is at her commanding best here. Her wrenching lament over Antony's suicide (``the crown of the earth has melted'') convinces both her captors and us that ``there is nothing left remarkable under the visiting moon.''

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