According to the blurb, this off-the-wall version of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is inspired by the Profumo Affair. I'm not sure I'd have realised that if they hadn't told me, but it's an evocative milieu all the same: amidst the seething tensions of 1960's London, Mark Antony is a political leader, and Cleopatra a dancer in a high-class nightclub. Antony's fascination with Cleo is stirring up scandal – and his political rivals sense the opportunity to take him down. But it comes at a cost to the unfortunate Cleopatra, who finds herself crushed between opposing powers.
Not all of this entirely make sense – there are frequent references to Downing Street, but also to Rome – but it's a smart move to interpret the ruling triumvirate as a fragile political coalition. Tyrone Purling's Octavius Caesar is an interesting creation: smooth, besuited and slightly geeky, it's obvious he's got his power through machinations rather than force. I also admired Benjamin Baeza as Enorbarbus, hiding a hint of sleaziness and thuggishness just below the surface, as befits a political spin-doctor. And some well-conceived gender inversion sees both Lepidus and Pompey played by women – the former as a matronly stalwart, the latter a rebellious standard-bearer.
If you're expecting faithful adherence to the Bardic plot, though, you'd better think again. There's cabaret, boxing, and an election campaign; the one thing there isn't is an asp. Individually, these gimmicks are thematic and creative, and sometimes even find new windows onto the story (as in the final scene, where Cleopatra faces humiliation not by Romans but by reporters). But the whole thing feels a little incoherent, despite the presence of an MC; the patchwork of ideas is colourful but not quite stitched together.
Amidst all these shenanigans, there actually are a few soliloquies – which were, I have to say, respectfully and powerfully performed. This mix of old and new sometimes chimes well, particularly when the Shakespearean text is delivered as a high-flown political speech. But other transitions felt lumpy and forced to me; phrases like "smug nob" and "willy-waving" just don't sit well beside iambic pentameters. I think that one or the other has to go.
And if you left it up to me, I'd lose the Shakespeare. If you view it as a tragicomic romp – a thinking person's Carry On Cleo, with nods to the Bard – then there's a lot of good work here to enjoy. As a telling of Antony and Cleopatra, it's nowhere near as strong; Cleopatra is significantly diminished by moving her from a palace to a nightclub, and many of Shakespeare's well-worked themes are missing completely. But still: this is a fun show to be at, youthful and inventive, and the kind of free-spirited experiment that Fringe shows ought to be.