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Bard’s epic tale a study of addiction given new makeover by RSC

The RSC’s new transatlantic production of Antony and Cleopatra has been radically edited and is directed by rising US playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Catherine Vonledebur reports.

Hugo Glendinning Jonathan Cake as Marc Antony in the RSC's new Antony and Cleopatra
Jonathan Cake as Marc Antony in the RSC's new Antony and Cleopatra

British actor Jonathan Cake lives a transatlantic lifestyle, with no permanent abode.

He and his family recently moved from a two-bedroom “phone box” in New York to a house in LA’s last Bohemian hippy outpost, Topanga Canyon.

From there Jonathan has returned to Stratford-upon-Avon to play warrior Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, an international co-production between the RSC, New York’s Public Theater, Miami’s GableStage and Ohio State University. It stars five actors from the UK and five actors from the US.

Directed by award-winning US playwright and actor Tarrell Alvin McCraney, the play has been stripped down and set in revolutionary Haiti during the late 1700s. Jonathan admits it is “very liberating” to do a play with no preconceptions.

“I do not know the play very well. I did a workshop for a stage show in New York but I’ve never seen it,” he says.

“I think Tarrell has the most extraordinary theatrical imagination. He’s a phenomenal playwright.

“People do not know so much about Antony and Cleopatra, but he’s made things resonate. It’s a radical edit. Scenes have been re-ordered, speeches reassigned and it’s been very heavily cut.

“To me Antony and Cleopatra is a study of addiction. Antony’s addicted to Cleopatra in a way that’s destructive. He finds it impossible to do without her. There’s real truth in there. If you are Antony, have conquered half the world and lived the life he has lived he thinks what’s the point of going on if you can’t live life without pleasure. A lot of me admires those people who are genuine pleasure-seekers. There’s something admirable about that or at least, very human.

“Joaquina Kalukango who plays Cleopatra is amazing. She’s 24, from Atlanta and went to Julliard (Drama School, New York). I had heard about her on the New York theatre scene.

“She’s very easy to be addicted to and she has this extremely mercurial spirit that can encompass so much. She’s really something else. I am lucky to get in on the beginning of one of the great US theatre careers.”

The last time the 46-year-old Cambridge University English graduate performed at the RSC was in 1993. “I was 26 and it feels like such a lifetime ago.

“I was in Greg Doran’s first ever production of the season –The Odyssey. Now blissfully he’s running the place. He’s such an extraordinary ray of sunshine. The level of care taken of the actors and crew is incredible. It’s really nice to see how human the place is and the new building looks breathtaking.”

Jonathan is also delighted to be working again with an old friend, RSC associate designer Tom Piper.

“I’ve known Tom since I was 18. We went to uni together. He designed Sam Mendes’ Cyrano de Bergerac and we knew then he was going to be something.

"I did feel at the time: ‘this is exciting’.” Jonathan has since appeared in numerous TV and theatre roles on both sides of the Atlantic including a film remake of Brideshead Revisited, Desperate Housewives, The Killing, the lead in Shakespeare Globe’s production of Coriolanus, Benedick in TFANA’s Much Ado About Nothing in New York and British fascist Oswald Mosley in Channel 4’s Mosley.

Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra in the RSC's new Antony and Cleopatra
Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra in the RSC's new Antony and Cleopatra
 

Deborah Warner’s award-winning Medea in the West End and on Broadway was a personal highlight. It had a short sell-out run on Broadway.

“We did it in New York just after September 11. There was this extraordinary feeling. The theatre audience in New York wanted to hear what Euripides had to say about suffering,” he says.

“It had this feeling of piercing people who listened to it. It was an extremely memorable production. People who saw it, still stop me in the street in New York, and want to talk about it.”

One of the biggest challenges of a transatlantic acting career is the inevitable separation. Jonathan is already missing his wife, US actress Julienne Nicholson, six-year-old Ignatius, known as “Iggy” and Phoebe, aged four.

He says: “The eight-hour time difference makes it very hard. We have become very good at inventive Skyping. We play Skype-and-Seek. We don’t have a permanent home. We moved to California from New York 18 months ago. We found this beautiful place to live. We went from living in a two-bedroom phone box in Chelsea, Manhatten to Topanga Canyon, an old hippy capital where Neil Young and the Manson family lived in the 60s. To have some space to move around felt so completely seductive.

“The kids would be happy in cardboard box – but for us it meant no longer have to schlepp buggies up the subway.”

The couple take it in turns to work. Julienne, who appears in Channel 4’s Masters of Sex, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, has just filmed a big-screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize–winning stage drama August: Osage County.

“She plays Meryl Streep’s younger sister,” says Jonathan.

Jonathan is excited by two, as yet, future unreleased dramas – Under the Rainbow, a new film with American actress Lili Taylor and Doll and Em a new, semi-improvised six-part comedy created by and starring his best friend, British actress Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells.

Jonathan says: “Emily and I did a terrible film together called Noah’s Ark in 1998 in Australia – and have been best friends ever since. She is godmother to Iggy.

“Emily and Dolly are childhood friends and play fictional versions of themselves in Hollywood. Emily and her husband know everyone – it’s got Bradley Cooper, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack.

“I play a film producer. I thought I was only going to spend a couple of days in a drunken hot tub scene; but I become Dolly’s boyfriend.”

• Antony and Cleopatra runs at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until November 30. For tickets go to www.rsc.org.uk

 

Review: RSC - Antony and Cleopatra, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon 

 
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