Above the legendary rock ’n’ punk pub The Hope and Anchor in Islington, north London, is the city’s newest Fringe stage venue, The Hope Theatre, dedicated to new writing and to supporting new talent onstage and behind it. What was formerly the pub’s function room, a spot that would serve as a smallish dining room in other similar pubs, has been transformed into a space that, while tiny, makes the most of what it has. There is no stage, per se, and little distinction between actors and audience: at the performance of its production of Cleopatra, a new play by Gareth Cadwallader, I attended last night, the full house (the theatre seats 50) crowded around the set was cast in the role of the goddess-queen’s courtiers, though of course we were rendered entirely mute — except for plenty of robust laughter — by her glorious divinity.
The Hope would be worth supporting in an eat-your-vegetables way, for while it receives no public funding and no money from a bar downstairs that was raucously busy last night, everyone involved in its productions is paid at least minimum wage, through an agreement with Equity, the arts and entertainment union. And its mission to give new artists a space to improve their craft, take risks, and try out new plays without having to worry about making a profit is exactly what the industry needs. (The Hope’s funding comes entirely from ticket sales and the generosity of supporters.)
But happily, Cleopatra is just plain good, smart fun on its own merits. Snappy, snarky, and brisk — just under two hours, including a 15-minute interval — this is a drawing-room update on the classic story of the Egyptian queen, a day in the life of a woman who, regardless of her supposed power and influence, was a mere courtier herself to the might of Rome. Shelley Lang as the queen is a rapid-fire spitfire as she frets waiting for the Roman Senate to pass a law that will allow her to become the wife of Julius Caesar — and her son by him his heir — while also wondering just when her other lover, Caesar’s top security aide Marc Antony, will come to visit.
The tininess of The Hope adds a remarkable bouncing-off-the-walls quality to Cleopatra’s physical and emotional pacing, and to the screwball to-ing and fro-ing of Cleopatra’s slaves, including her political secretary Mardian (cool, serene Jordan Mallory-Skinner), sweet Iras (Alex Bedward, who projects naive innocence like that’s a good thing), and crafty Charmian (the elegant Marianne Chase). The rest of the small cast features Mark Edel-Hunt as Antony, who brings a surprising and disturbing brutality to the part; Hamish Macdougall as an appropriately smarmy Marcus Brutus; and Richard Mason as oily, imperious Octavius, a nephew of Caesar just named his heir. The whole cast is fantastic, each of them with palpable presence. Some already have juicy credits to their names — Lang appeared in Inception; Edel-Hunt is current shooting with the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them go on to rich careers.
Director Mary Franklin makes some smart choices that turn this into one of the more immersive theatre experiences I’ve had, such as taking advantage of the fact that street noises from below will inevitably intrude; there comes a moment in the play when it’s hard to tell initially whether what we’re hearing is sound FX or something real happening outside — it didn’t even occur to me at first that it could have been part of the show.
I’ve worked in small theatre, back in New York before I was a critic. I know how hard it is to pull off. Everyone involved in Cleopatra makes it look effortless.
Cleopatra runs through February 1st. Tickets are available at The Hope Theatre.