Radio Reviews: Antony and Cleopatra; Blood Count; Ring for Jeeves

Shakespeare would have turned 450 this month, if he’d been cryogenically enabled, and as part of the celebrations Radio 3 poses the impudent question: Is Shakespeare’s genius beyond question? To which the answer is, Of course. Anyone not batting for Will by the end of that edition of the Sunday Feature only had to stick around for Alison Hindell’s lustrous new production of Antony and Cleopatra which followed. The Alexandrian scenes in which the lovers canoodle are sumptuous and headily perfumed - if radio can summon up pictures, why not aromas? - a master class in the ‘feminine’ arts of seduction.

But it is Kenneth Branagh’s Antony, reclining in the Egyptian queen’s arms, emitting the drugged stupefaction of a 70s counter-culture icon with the languor of a Baroque prince, who knows which buttons to press. Who knew the Romans’ legacy included the metrosexual arts along with roads, public baths, cabbages and peas? When Antony whispers sweet persuasive nothings at Cleopatra, wheedling like a paid girl in a hostess club, gender roles are reversed. Alex Kingston’s Cleopatra is not without coquettish instincts but a steely determinism underlies her playfulness.

Once beyond her orbit and back in Rome, where the atmosphere is studiedly conspiratorial and martial, Antony transforms into the man of power, his speech taking on a gravitas it loses under Cleopatra’s influence. Branagh’s Antony is not unlikeable but he is a man fatally flawed and when he comes up against the fury of Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Caesar, he is outwitted by the greater political predator. While Branagh makes a passionate declaration of his shame after abandoning his fleet, he is quickly distracted and mollified by a kiss from Cleopatra.

This production goes a long way to making Cleopatra the play’s protagonist. Her barge might be burnished, no doubt by a troupe of dungaree-wearing handmaidens, but she is much more than a symbol of style, success and excess. Kingston brings to the role the toughness and mental acuity she displayed in Dr Who with her turn as Dr River Song; if only Cleopatra had learned the trick of spiraling backwards in time, she would have been undefeatable. This is a play riddled with uncertainties; even during her appointment with death-by-asp I veer wildly between believing she loved Antony and thinking it a sham. These ambiguities of intrepretation are, in part, what makes the play by the mature Shakespeare so intriguing.

[pullquote]This is a play riddled with uncertainties; even during her appointment with death-by-asp I veer wildly between believing she loved Antony and thinking it a sham[/pullquote]

Among the notable performances is Robert Pugh as Enobarbus, part of Antony’s cohort and a character given some of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable poetry. His is a honeyed delivery, words lingered over, imbued with ecstasy or mourning. Elizabeth Purnell’s music, plangent with strings and jangly percussive tones, helps establish the play’s tremendous sense of ambience as locations are switched.

Another twosome whose lives hide a more discreet power play are uncovered in Ian Smith’s revelatory Blood Count. Jazzman Duke Ellington, played with authority by Clarke Peters, is being grilled by a persistent Time journalist (Ashleigh Haddad as the not-at-all dumb blonde) on whether he has given due credit to his collaborators. An interesting conundrum is floated: if Ellington asks his band what they want to play at certain junctures, is he giving them creative freedom or stealing their ideas? Recent judgments on contemporary music royalty disputes have come down on the latter side. Ellington would disagree.

Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s greatest musical aide, a genius at composing and arranging, is dying of the oesophageal cancer, which was to kill him in 1967, when we meet him more than half way through the play. His presence, though, has informed the discussion. Don Gilet is softly spoken as Billy, and not just because his throat has been removed and he can only talk because doctors retained his larynx, as he announces. Billy’s defence of Ellington is eloquent and moving. Without him, he says, he would be a lounge lizard Cole Porter, a third rate Gershwin. The play, based on extensive research, directed by Martin Smith and featuring the coolest jazz track performed by the author on trumpet, with Matt Home (drums), Andrew Cleydent (bass), Dave Newton (piano) and Alan Barnes (reeds), is named after the last piece of music Strayhorn ever wrote for Ellington, whom he called 'the seductive blood of music'.

In the annals of great couples, Bertie Wooster and his indefatigable butler Jeeves certainly figure even if its dynamics are less about symbiosis and more about damage limitation. But what’s this? Jeeves without Wooster? Ring for Jeeves features the white-gloved flunkey without his witless master. It is not death that has parted them but economics. Wooster has gone off to a school to learn how aristocrats can fend for themselves. (PG Wodehouse’s only novel without Wooster was published in 1953).

Martin Jarvis is Jeeves, (whom he performed just over a decade ago on Broadway in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical By Jeeves) and like his other great character, Richmal Crompton’s William Brown, he brings to it a delicious irony, which hums just below the surface, making it all the more comical. Directed by Rosalind Ayres and adapted by Archie Scottney, the two-part drama fields a host of larger-than-life retired captains and indigent lords, marshalled by capable women (Joanne Whalley and Moira Quirk). Rufus Sewell is hilariously high-pitched and wheezy as the Earl’s brother-in-law and Ian Ogilvy is the floridly outraged Cuthbert Biggar. Jeeves bounces off this motley crew as he attempts to curtail the illegal bookmaking activities of the earl (Jamie Bamber) to whom he has been seconded in Wooster’s absence. It’s a jolly romp but Jeeves without Wooster is like Laurel without Hardy or Ant without Dec. Only half the fun.

Antony and Cleopatra R3, Sunday April 20

Blood Count R4, Friday April 11

Ring for Jeeves R4, Sunday April 20