"Killing time before killing time"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 14/01/14

Hope Theatre on Upper Street is London's newest fringe theatre, and though unfunded it has taken the unusual and extremely admirable decision to pay its actors and crew equity rates. Given its reliance on ticket sales to fund this - in a venue that can scarcely seat 50, and with its promise to produce exclusively new writing - it seems incredibly, even madly ambitious. Anyone who cares about the London theatre scene will be hoping that it succeeds. If it does it will be some achievement - and a very welcome one that may persuade other fringe venues and companies to adopt equity rates.

New show 'Cleopatra' is an enjoyable curio inspired by the intriguing arcanum that the Egyptian queen was residing in Rome at the time of Julius Caeser's assassination. With little known about her movements on the ides of March, writer Gareth Cadwallader has found a small window in which to create his own version of a figure whose personality, significance and legacy have been battled over ever since she caught the all-conquering consul's eye.

Shelley Lang as Cleopatra is sparky, campy and shameless; her performance pitched somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor, Ruby Wax and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' beleaguered 'Veep'. Although the text isn't ripe with jokes she has the flair to bring some of the play's sillier moments alive. She's well supported by Jordan Mallory-Skinner, wonderfully dry as her bemused eunuch secretary, and Mark Edel-Hunt, whose lusty cameo as Mark Anthony makes for a more interesting encounter than those with obvious opponents Brutus (Hamish MacDougall) and Octavius (Richard Mason).

Lang and Edel-Hunt excel in their rather uncomfortable quasi-love scenes, a grim farrago of bump and grind played out in front of the queen's servants in a way that seems bleakly appropriate. I'm not sure Cleopatra's use of her sexuality is precisely a victory for feminism, but it certainly suggests she was a conscious player in the power games of her time. A point made even more explicit when she dubs the passive Octavius 'Little Puss'.

Yet in spite of these sharp moments Cadwallader's script is fairly thin. There is very little plot - only some jockeying over Caesar's will provides any sort of through line. Instead everyone seems trapped in limbo, in Cleopatra's musty quarters, and in a round of purposeless meetings. Caesar's assassination should provide a final release, but without ever meeting him - and lacking any great sense of threat - the revelation of his death is neither climatic, nor even bathetic. It's incidental.

There are also some strange choices in direction - the costumes and set strewn with paper are suggestive but without locus, and why Brutus should be quite so scruffy eludes me. (If I had my way I'd also ban chaise longues from theatres; all they really symbolise is that you're watching a play). In fact I was finally reminded of Louis McNeice's couplet on antiquity - 'it was all so unimaginably different / and all so long ago'. Cleopatra's world is so different, and frankly weird, that the default naturalism of the acting and the cluttered opacity of the staging, diminished any sense of wonder. Somehow it became just a little too hard to forget one was sitting in the upstairs room of a pub wondering if this was quite the best way to spend a Friday night.

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