by William Shakespeare
Photos: Joe Brown
Thu 27 July - Sat 5 August 2017 at 7.30pm (no performance Sun 30 July)
Performed in the open air in the courtyard of Abington Park Museum, Park Avenue South, Northampton NN1 5LW
CAST & CREW
Mark Antony Matthew Fell
Cleopatra Bernie Wood
Octavius Caesar Edward Toone
Enobarbus Nicola Osborne
Dercetus Jen Kenny
Eros Elizabeth Palmer
Euphronius Roger Toone
Charmian Rachel Bedford
Iras April Pardoe
Alexas Michael Street
Mardian Kevin Pinks
Diomedes Brian Harrap
Agrippa Maggie Holland
Octavia Beverley Webster
Proculeius Alistair Way
Thidias Julia Langley
Lepidus Victor Guse
Pompey Rob Kendall
Menas Siôn Grace
Soothsayer Sue Whyte
Director John Myhill
Stage Manager Denise Swann
Backstage Assistance Peter Collins
Sound & Lighting Phil Welsh
Designer Tamsyn Payne
Wardrobe Clare Brittain
Tunics & togas Pam Mann
Armourer Peter Darnell
Set Construction Mark Mortimer
Egyptian Paintings Simon Baird
Box Officer Manager Sue Howes
Front of House Masque Theatre members
Programme Graham Follett
Photography Joe Brown
Masque Theatre have been performing a huge variety of plays since formation in 1932, including many by William Shakespeare, but rarely have the actors been required to don togas and sandals for one of the Bard of Avon's ‘Roman’ plays, generally listed as Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Cymbeline and Antony and Cleopatra.
Of these, as far as I know, only the latter has been previously performed: in 1996.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of the later Shakespeare plays, the action sweeps to and from Rome and Egypt, and it is Roman Politics that forms the background to this fascinating, many-layered play dominated by one of Shakespeare's greatest female characters, the legendary Cleopatra, ‘my serpent of old Nile’ as her lover, Mark Antony calls her.
She is indeed a woman of ‘infinite variety’: a charismatic diva, sensuous, passionate, manipulative, vain, histrionic, skittish, exasperating, yet always enchanting. A terrific role to challenge any actress, then, and one to which Bernadette Wood rises magnificently, displaying the gamut of all this great Queen's emotions and not leaving us in any doubt why Antony gives up everything for her.
This is a stellar performance, and Bernie is well matched by Matthew Fell as Antony, ideally cast as her lover. Blest with a fine voice and clear diction, Matthew has great stage presence together with his experience of leading roles, and this is all brought brilliantly to the fore here as the doomed Roman hero.
Similarly effective is Ed Toone as Octavius, totally convincing in the part of this pragmatic, cold fish of a man, the very opposite of pleasure loving Antony, who only shows us any genuine affection for another in the person of his sister Octavia. He is clearly from the outset bent on Antony's downfall, but at the last, faced with the death of his old adversary and that of the Egyptian Queen, his character, as portrayed by Ed, seems to grow and he becomes sorrowful and magnanimous in victory.
Creating all this for the stage is John Myhill, an exciting, imaginative Director, who proves here once again he is not afraid to take risks and try fresh approaches. Examples would include the impressive opening scene, the clever use of music and lighting particularly in the most dramatic and poignant moments, and his decision to cast females in roles traditionally taken by men. I have to admit wondering how this was going to work but thanks to the quality of the actresses and the magic of live theatre I felt as the director hoped we all would, and very quickly accepted this and became absorbed in the progress of the play.
Praise then, to Nicola Osborne as Enobarbus, who has the famous speech describing the first meeting of the tragic lovers; Jen Kenny, so full of energy as the warlike Dercetus; Elizabeth Palmer making her debut for Masque as the loyal Eros; Maggie Holland as Caesar's General Agrippa, and Julia Langley as Thidias. Rachel Bedford and April Pardoe offer strong support as Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra's faithful handmaidens, who die along with their Queen in a memorably dramatic final scene. Beverley Webster brings subtle dignity to the role of the wronged and blameless Octavia, and another eye catching performance comes from Sue Whyte in two cameo roles.
A fine ‘phalanx’ of stalwart ‘Masquetteers’ all make a solid contribution in supporting parts: Roger Toone, Brian Harrap, Alistair Way, Victor Guse, Rob Kendall, and Sion Grace. With the rest of the audience I especially enjoyed the performance of Kevin Pinks, as poor put upon Mardian the humorous eunuch, whilst Michael Street is an hilarious joy as Alexas, the justifiably apprehensive attendant and messenger who has the unenviable task of bringing the fiery Cleopatra some unwelcome news.
Every theatrical production is collaborative, so mention is due to those behind the scenes without whom the show literally could not go on. Phillip Welsh, an accomplished director in his own right, and the ‘Mr Technicals’ of local theatre, was on sound and lighting. Set construction, the work of the ever resourceful Mark Mortimer, and design by talented Tamsyn Payne.
Stage Management was carried out with the efficiency only to be expected from Denise Swann, assisted by Peter Collins. In the 1996 Masque's Antony and Cleopatra it was Denise who graced the stage as the Egyptian Queen, a production directed by Masque's current Chairman Rob Kendall, (Pompey in this Summer Show).
Many others will have contributed to the production, including refreshments and box office teams. The striking costumes were the work of Clare Brittain and Pam Mann, and also impressive was the magnificent armour sported by Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony and designed by Peter Darnell. So very well done all concerned, the Summer Show, always at the mercy of the weather, has long become a Northampton institution and may it continue to be so.
Desire. Duty. Divided loyalties.
Cleopatra, the clever queen of Egypt.
Octavius Caesar, the empire builder who made Rome the mightiest power in the world.
Mark Antony, the great general torn between them.
Is Antony neglecting his duties as one third of the triumvirate that rules the Roman Empire, luxuriating with Cleopatra in sensual abandonment? Or is he ready to drop her if duty calls? Is he a lover or a fighter?
Is Cleopatra putting Egypt first by staying loyal to Antony, the great general of past campaigns, or would her country be better protected by alliance with Octavius Caesar, the coming man?
Can Octavius trust his old mentor to do the right thing by Rome, or must he divide and conquer? Or can the wily and beautiful queen seduce him like she did his adopted father?
Antony and Cleopatra revolves around this political love triangle, with their supporters torn between following their hearts or their heads, being loyal to their leaders or looking after their own interests.
It’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest love stories, with humour, drama, tension and tragedy in ample measure, performed in the beautiful open air courtyard of Abington Park Museum.
Unusually for a Shakespeare production, I have cast equal numbers of women and men, following my decision to open male roles to the many talented women in the group, who have risen to the challenge. If Shakespeare’s original audiences could accept men in women’s roles, even playing Cleopatra, then I am sure modern audiences can accept cross-dressing the other way, especially after recent professional “gender-blind” productions with Maxine Peake as Hamlet, Glenda Jackson as King Lear and Michelle Terry as Henry V. There’s an interesting article about it here.
In the title roles are Matt Fell as Antony and Bernie Wood as Cleopatra.
Matt was seen most recently in Dinner and is a regular director, having swapped positions with me having directed me in both 2014’s Much Ado About Nothing and 2015’s Macbeth.
Bernie has just finished a tour with White Cobra Production’s Dizzy Boo and also played the ghost of Shakespeare’s Granddaughter in Masque’s 2016 production of Shaxpeare’s Box, both shows written by local author Brian Wright.
The role of Octavius Caesar is taken by Edward Toone, who was also in Much Ado and Macbeth with John, as Claudio and Ross respectively, while Lady Macbeth from the latter, Nicola Toone, swaps her elegant gown for a soldier’s tunic in the role of Enobarbus, Antony’s right-hand man.
In fact, all of Antony’s men are played by women, with Jen Kenny (one of Macbeth’s witches in 2015) taking the role of Dercetus and newcomer Izzy Palmer playing Eros. Antony’s old tutor Euphronius is played by Ed’s father Roger Toone, last seen in Henry V in 2016.
Caesar also has his share of women soldiers, with his second-in-command Agrippa played by Maggie Holland, another director in her own right (and the memorable title character in The Playhouse’s 2016 production of The Killing of Sister George, and his envoy Thidias played by Julia Langley, seen earlier this year in both Masque’s Playhouse Creatures and The Playhouse’s moving Steel Magnolias.
Caesar’s men are completed by Alistair Way as Proculeius, previously the Sexton in Much Ado and more recently a disco-dancing Wolf in Duston Players’ Little Red Riding Hood!
There is also a woman in Caesar’s life – his sister Octavia - played by Beverley Webster, director of Playhouse Creatures and Alice in Henry V.
Cleopatra’s court includes handmaidens Charmian and Iras, parts taken respectively by Rachel Bedford (the Beatrice to John’s Benedick in Much Ado and The Witch in Into the Woods from 2014 amongst many other roles) and April Pardoe (Mistress Quickly in last year’s Henry V, a moving Mrs Gibbs in 2015’s Our Town and also in Playhouse Creatures).
Her eunuch Mardian is Kevin Pinks (the scene-stealing Mason from this year’s Journey’s End), her major-domo Diomedes is Brian Harrap (a veteran of many productions, including Henry V last year), and Alexas, her go-between with Antony, is Mike Street, barely out of roman garb as Senex in this years A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum for The Open Theatre Group in Milton Keynes, and Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood in last year’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
Elsewhere in the ancient world, Masque stalwart Rob Kendall (director of Henry V, not to mention 2011’s Romeo & Juliet where I got my first Shakespearian role as the Friar) plays enemy of Rome Sextus Pompey, with newcomer to the group Sion Grace as his piratical sidekick Menas.
Victor Guse, the French King in last year’s show and Editor Webb in Our Town, plays Lepidus, oft-forgotten third member of the ruling Triumvirate, and last but by no means least Sue Whyte, the earthly Doll Common in Playhouse Creatures plays a feminised and more spiritually minded Soothsayer.
I have assembled a dream cast for my first venture into directing the Bard, although studying English at Oxford under the late great Professor Reggie Alton has given me a familiarity with Shakespeare’s texts; and I have previously directed Our Town in 2015, this year’s Dizzy Boo for White Cobra Productions, and many pantomimes and comedies for Duston Players.
Staged in full period costume with a touch of Hollywood glamour, this is one of Shakespeare’s most sumptuous treats. Expect togas and crowns, short swords and sandals, laughter and tears.
John Myhill directed Our Town (2015) for Masque Theatre.