For audiences with memories that go back 30 years or so, it is a point of general agreement that nobody has ever seen a satisfactory version of this play: and the return of Peter Brook to Stratford after almost a decade aroused hopes of a landmark production in the class of his Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The event, as it turned out, makes an austerely muted contrast with its two illustrious predecessors. Anyone visiting the show in hopes of spectacular novelties will sit through its three and a half hours in vain; though it is obvious within the first few minutes of the piece, presenting the opposing worlds of Rome and Egypt, that Brook and his designer Sally Jacobs have hit on a wonderfully simple solution to the play's notoriously sprawling layout. The stage consists of a semicircle of opaque glass panels with two doorways affording the view of a neutral backcloth. The glass acts partly as a gauze that can be obliterated for foreground action; it also permits rapid switches between foreground and background. This antiseptic setting stands in ironic contrast to both the form and the content of the play; and when you notice that, the purposes of the production begin to unfold.
The received idea of Antony and Cleopatra is that of a tragic love affair between two doomed, great-hearted principals ranged against a cold-blooded political adversary. And with that expectation, it is not surprising that productions so often leave you dissatisfied. Brook's approach to Shakespeare has always been that he gives you more from moment to moment than any other dramatist. And in this case, Brook goes out of his way to point up all the things that do not conform to the myth of a world well lost. The first big surprise is the gentle sweet-natured Octavius of Jonathan Pryce (especially considering this actor's fire-eating track record). The attachment between Alan Howard's Antony and this Octavius is more than an onerous political duty. There is straightforward human love between the veteran and the younger man: and after their first parley, each side purring his point with the slow vigilance of a chess player, the reconciliation is sealed with a delighted embrace. The same goes for David Suchet's Pompey, who begins with loudly unselfconfident blustering and then seizes Antony's patronizing hand of friendship with intense relief. Both Octavius and Pompey look up to Antony as a senior partner by whom they have always felt outclassed. Antony shares this view: hence the incredulity on both sides when he meets his first defeat. Mr. Howard collapses and covers his eyes, unable to contemplate the unbelievable humiliation. As for Octavius, he begins from that moment to lose his innocent charm and develop into the icy calculating demigod of the later scenes.
With this treatment of Rome there is a far stronger sense of what Antony has thrown away. Nor can it be weighed in the balance against what he gains. Direct human affection of the Roman kind is the one thing he cannot get from Glenda Jackson's otherwise inexhaustibly various Cleopatra. They make a stupendous and utterly unmoving pair. They are plainly victims of a folle à deux and the production shows in merciless detail the price they pay for it. Brook takes his cue from Shakespeare's prolonged treatment of the events. Antony is defeated twice; he then fails to kill himself. It is a terrible ignoble mess, and in showing it to be precisely that with Mr. Howard finally stumbling towads the monument in an unbelieving daze, the production ideliberately forfeits any aspirations to the heroic. "I am dying Egypt, dying", Mr. Howard complains at his consort's continued appetite for his body. The point is finally driven home in Cleopatra's death scene: the clown with the asp is for once a real red-nosed comedian, who delays her grand departure from the world with a series of false exits.
The Times, 1978
Playing Shakespeare/Antony and Cleopatra