Venue: York Theatre Royal
I didn’t know what to expect on Sunday as I walked into York’s Theatre Royal. I had been told by the website that Sunday’s performance was a ‘rehearsed reading’, as opposed to a full production, and I was curious to see what this would be like. On stage, brightly lit, there was a line of empty chairs. The cast walked out in their own clothes, scripts and water bottles, to applause, and it reminded me of the photographs you often find in programs of rehearsals, or the preliminary readings in ‘Making of’ documentaries. The two leading cast members, Paterson Joseph (Antony) and Niamh Cusack (Cleopatra) took the central seats whilst George Costigan, the director, was leaning in from the far left. The fourth wall wasn’t broken – they didn’t feel the need to put it up in the first place.
The actors stand up and perform as they read their lines but they are still finding these characters. Cusack repeats several stock poses on stage that vaguely characterise ‘Cleopatra’, defaulting to a stance of one hand on her hip and her chin raised. Joseph’s ‘Antony’ is not yet congruous all the way through; his sudden outburst of anger in the second act is more reminiscent of his recent Brutus in RSC/Doran’s Julius Caesar than the character he was playing five minutes earlier. This underdevelopment and the improvised nature is apparent throughout the performance, although these capable actors bring some life to the script – in particular, the humour in the play feels fresh; the actors themselves are still enjoying the jokes. You can see because they break character to smile, even when they are supposed to be dying on stage. The ability they had to improvise with such limited props was also entertaining; it was only in retrospect I realised the use of the jacket Joseph had chosen to wear that night was probably spontaneous.
This sort of unembellished production could have the potential to really illuminate the script but most of the time, it proved more distracting. The haphazard and almost deliberately unpolished use of music took our focus away from the actors. There was something slightly ludicrous about the slave clad in skinny jeans (Will Postlethwaite). On the other hand, Sally Bretton seemed to have (intentionally or not) picked out clothing that suited her character, Octavia, well. Whilst the actors were on stage as a character, they were also on stage presenting themselves; it was impossible not to put them under scrutiny as much as the characters.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest a staged reading of a play to everyone. Yet as a self-proclaimed theatre over-enthusiast I found enough to entertain me in what I was presented with. It was humbling to see the actors present themselves, rather than only characters, to the scrutiny of the audience and, although the performances did not carry the characters or the play to a new height, I can’t resent them for giving time to help raise money for our local theatre.