Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre
Well, at least it’s better than the Olivier’s last starry Shakespeare. But while Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra manages to clear the woefully low bar set by Rufus Norris’s bin bag Macbeth, there’s a big budget basicness to the production that does little to challenge the stage’s achingly uncool image.
Marc Antony (Ralph Fiennes) is off on his jollies, loved up in Egypt with the fairest Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo). The affair is ruined, however, when the Roman ruler receives word that his long-neglected wife has died, driving him back to the heart of the Empire and the unyielding embrace of his triumvirate comrades Octavius Caesar (Tunji Kasim) and Lepidus (Nicholas Le Prevost). What follows is the Bard’s usual mix of marriage, politicking, war and betrayal, a bloody path leading all the way to a Romeo and Juliet-esque finale.
What Godwin has overseen is as slick as anything. Designer Hildegard Bechtler produces Egyptian palaces with indoor pools, the looming prow of a war ship, Roman offices full of the cool marble and plundered loot normally found in somewhere like the British Museum. There are explosions and firefights, complete with the requisite army fatigues, and a procession of costume changes for Cleopatra reminiscent of a megastar arena tour (at one point she even seems to wear Beyoncé’s yellow wonder from the Hold Up video). And there’s an actual goddamn snake. If the play requires it, it’s there.
And that’s part of the problem. Because watching the production more engages the audience’s accountancy skills, tracing where the National’s money has gone, than their imagination. It’s an IKEA variety updated Shakespeare, with nothing in the design or direction to root the play in a specific time or version of its host nations.
The (almost) saving grace is the central pairing. Starting off like an unconventional CEO, a Branson type, finding himself abroad, suffocated by the suits he has to wear back home, Fiennes’s Antony gradually sees his self-perceived virility crumble, replaced by a younger, quicker model.
Even better is Okonedo. Unlike Antony, who is embroiled in the politics of Rome, her Cleopatra appears to be a purely palace creation, an inconsistent deity used to absolute rule. Constantly flanked by her handmaidens, she veers between petulant and caring, a lovesick teen and a self-interested leader. It is a charismatic, witty, dazzling performance that often sees Okonedo drag the three-and-a-half-hour-long production out of the mire.
Photo: Johan Persson
Antony and Cleopatra is at the National Theatre from 18th September until 19th October 2018 and will be broadcast live as part of NT Live on 6th December 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Antony and Cleopatra here: