Antony & Cleopatra at the National Theatre Online
Enriching our lives by bringing their stunning performances to our home to brave the Coronavirus pandemic, the National Theatre is streaming their 2018 contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra on YouTube until 14th May. And stunning it is: through a high-quality and big-budget production, as well as amazing performances by the lead actors, it presents itself as a phenomenal success.
It’s no secret that this play is tough to adapt properly; its plot concerns nothing less than the fate of the Roman empire, a love affair between two middle-aged individuals pitted against the threat of humiliation and wider political interests. To see it done so well by director Simon Godwin is heartening. Hildegard Bechtler’s contemporary staging highlights the discrepancy between Rome and Egypt: the former contains a high-tech militaristic set, whereas the latter looks more traditionally designed – a strong effort, if occasionally heavy-handed. Musical interventions by Magnus Mehta are atmospheric and highly effective, although the soundtrack is generally too loud – a fault of the stream, not the production, no doubt. Despite slight hiccups, this is a powerful staging which supports the work well.
But what makes the show outstanding are its stars, Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra and Ralph Fiennes as Antony. These are notoriously difficult characters to master, but the actors pull it off not only well, but with the highest degree of quality. Cleopatra is quick-witted and majestic; a towering pillar of self-confidence who maintains a child-like view of the world through her naïve fascination with Antony, who is utterly crushed by the end of the runtime – and Okonedo is perfect. She is a fierce force to be reckoned with, all the while maintaining her good humour and yet making the audience feel the tragic blow at the conclusion. Antony is a soldier past his prime; intoxicated by Cleopatra’s charms, he falls into hedonism and sensuality, resulting in his downfall as his past glory gives way to utter humiliation. Fiennes is stunning, demonstrating finesse on stage as he captures all of the role’s complexities, be it as the military man or the infatuated lover. His strongest moments are when he realises his inevitable fate; his reaction to Enobarbus’s betrayal is outstanding.
There’s little more that can be said – the production is a sheer spectacle. It hooks the audience from start to finish and remains an absolute must-see for anyone with a love of Shakespeare.
Photo: Johan Persson