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Bell Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the Playhouse is rewarding

Antony and Cleopatra. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Evans. Bell Shakespeare Company. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until April 21.canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700

Power and passion play out their tragic destiny in Peter Evans's modern-day production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Based on Plutarch's account of the life of Mark Antony, Antony and Cleopatra could well be considered Shakespeare's most political drama, probing as it does the complex politics of love against a background of the politics of war.

Four years have passed since the assassination of Julius Caesar and the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. Mark Antony (Johnny Carr), Octavius Caesar (Gareth Reeves) and Lepidus (Jo Turner) rule Rome as a triumvirate. The heroic Antony spends much of his time in Alexandria with Cleopatra (Catherine McClements) much to the chagrin of the stoic Octavius. War is looming with Pompey (Lucy Goleby) and the triumvirate is on the verge of collapse.

I have seen several productions of Antony and Cleopatra and I have often been disappointed. Either the actors playing Antony and Cleopatra have failed to ignite a sexual chemistry that can give their volatile mood swings and passionate reconciliations credibility or the play's rapid changes in location between Alexandria, Rome and Sicily have confused and detracted from Shakespeare's insightful analysis of the human condition.

Evans' production is free of such encumbrance and purposeful in its vision. Anna Cordingly has designed a contemporary apartment setting, surrounded by a transparent curtain, on which are projected dates, locations and events. The stylish decor is effectively enhanced by Benjamin Cisterne's lighting design. The actors remain on stage throughout as chorus to the action, either moving trance-like during stylised transitions, or remaining silently seated.

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It is quickly apparent that Bell Shakespeare's production is not a traditional staging of a 400-year-old play. Shakespeare's noble soldier and revered queen forsake their stature to universal human failing. It is not entirely without flaw. The broad Australian accents momentarily jar, unsettling the rhythm of the heightened language and sacrificing diction for realism. Nonetheless, Evans' direction clearly portrays the cataclysmic impact of human motive on the political maelstrom of history. Octavius' defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the maritime Battle of Actium secured the power of Rome and determined the course of a Eurocentric history.

Audiences sit in silent judgment on motive and consequence. They witness Octavius' steely ambition, the expedient exploitation of Octavia (Ursula Mills), the cunning political instinct of Agrippa (Steve Rodgers), the enforcing threat of Menas (Joseph del Re), the devoted loyalty of Charmian (Zindzi Okenyo) and Alexas (Janine Watson), the betrayal by Enobarbus (Ray Chong Nee), and Antony and Cleopatra's inevitable doom.

Carr's Antony is a tortured soul who has lost his way. Distracted by love, bedevilled by a sense of duty he flails his way through private torment. McClements' Cleopatra is fire and air. She sets the stage alight with a performance that is as complex as it is honest. She is a woman, longing for love, and Egypt's queen, commanding authority. Wilful and volatile, moody and capricious, McClements' Cleopatra is every woman, and no other woman. Together, Carr and McClements powerfully forge Antony and Cleopatra's tragic path to self-destruction.

Evans methodically directs a play of irreconcilable opposing forces. His ensemble embraces the production's juxtaposed stylisation and naturalism as the politics of life and death plays out before our modern eyes. Psychological human failing rather than historical event is at the core of this challenging and newly minted production. Lend it new eyes and ears and you will be well rewarded.