Antony & Cleopatra

Shakespeare will always be Theatre Marmite. Those who hate will always hate. So for the National Theatre’s latest production of Antony and Cleopatra, there seems little point me saying Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is in equal parts hysterical, sensual and frightening in a performance of such power she should be bathing in awards, not milk… Or in describing the epic and wondrous staging that whisks you between Egypt and Rome, via the ocean… All they will see – admittedly as did I – is a Shakespeare tragedy with a running time of 3½ hours and any remaining interest is gone. Luckily for the lovers, though, as it reduces the competition for the very few tickets left for this superb Shakespeare smash.

There's power and majesty at the heart of Okonedo’s Cleopatra - both remarkable and beguiling in what must be the performance of the actor's career so far.

It’s ironic that six months ago – in the same space and with the same idea of the two stars sexually entwined on the posters (the stars are different to be fair) – we were given the similarly structured, but best forgotten Macbeth. Fortunately for every lazy, pedestrian, passionless moment in that production, there is an energetic, fastidious care and precision given to this. Resulting in a journey impossible not to be swept up by.

Like that other play (I’m choosing not to name, not because of theatrical superstition but because it seems unfair to mention the two productions in the same breath), the story of ‘A&C’ shouldn't need explaining – for those of a certain age, you will probably know enough by combining memories of Asterix and Amanda Barrie. Simply put, in middle age, Roman Emperor Mark Antony has the fire in life relit by the strong and passionate Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. While swept up in its all-encompassing nature, he loses his wife, his ability to battle, his power, his supporters and ultimately his life.

It’s the belief in this relationship that will decide whether you will return after the interval for the battle scenes that are often what kill any Shakespeare. And there’s not much to play with as we only see them on stage together in Act One for Scene One – so we have to just accept it as with the “so-naïve-they-deserve-death” Romeo and Juliet. Director Simon Godwin cleverly begun with the very last scene post-suicides (I’m sorry, but if that’s a spoiler, I very much doubt you were intending to go). To rewind to the beginning, Ralph Fiennes’ Antony sweeps Cleopatra back to life with a kiss that binds them with every breath, proclaiming their love, discussing their sexuality, sparring or just looking. Their words dance together – if this were Strictly… well, the gossip writes itself.

If they are a wonder when waltzing together, Okonedo is even stronger when left to tango alone (dance metaphor doesn’t quite work but let it go!). She alone builds our belief in their love as she caresses Antony’s name with every playful word. With a tornado like force, she commands the stage – at times literally, steering the revolve – she’s playfully teasing, overbearingly threatening, and at times you can’t be sure which is which. At one point – blaming the messenger for bearing the bad news of Antony’s new marriage – she pushes the slave into her pool, jokingly…? Hardly changing her tone moments later she holds a knife to his throat, but jokingly…? We can’t be sure.

There's power and majesty at the heart of Okonedo’s Cleopatra, clear in her veins whether teasing, titillating or threatening, and which disturbs as much as amuses. Controlling the verse with a dexterity that make it seem her own spontaneous thought, it's no exaggeration to say that she is both remarkable and beguiling in what must be the performance of the actor's career so far.

Fiennes is also clearly a master of the language and gives a great performance but is in higher company. And the rest of the cast are equally strong, no matter the size of role. Fisayo Akinade as Eros, the aforementioned soakee, who later takes his own life rather than Antony’s, gives a pleasing, gently camp wholly watchable performance. Tunji Kasim does a good job of giving character to the bland role of Caesar. And it's hard to ignore Tim McMullan’s lascivious Enobarbus, Antony's right-hand man, gurning and leering whenever he pops up. Whether this is talented scene-stealing or greedy upstaging is a matter of opinion; for me it was a gratuitous repetition of the very different Toby Belch in Godwin’s 2016 Twelfth Night. But it amuses some.

The final word has to be for designers Hildegard Bechtler, Tim Lutkin and Luke Halls who have taken everything offered by The Olivier and then added more. The revolve glides from the golden sultry heat of Cleopatra's pooled garden to the ordered sharpness of the walls and corridors of Rome as if moving between different theatres. The pool itself slowly disappears below stage with Cleopatra mourning inside. What seems to be the front half of a real submarine rises through the ground and encompasses the stage into something altogether different. And those battle scenes maintain attention through video footage, music, and walls that the company move around to heighten the scale.

This is how the feted Olivier stage is meant to be used. In every sense. Perhaps I am late to the party, but it seems that September is the time to see the one production in this space with the budget and creativity to be exalted. From 2015’s Our Country’s Good, 16’s Amadeus, Follies and here; each bettering the previous and saving the Oliver year overall. Worth booking 25th September 2019 in The Olivier whatever the show to see what’s next on this list – though Antony and Cleopatra has set a very high bar of theatrical wonderment that will take some beating.

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The Blurb

‘Eternity was in our lips and eyes.’

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo play the famous fated couple. Simon Godwin (Twelfth Night, Man and Superman, The Beaux' Stratagem) directs.

Caesar and his assassins are dead. General Mark Antony now rules alongside his fellow defenders of Rome. But at the fringes of a war-torn empire the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony have fallen fiercely in love.

Photo by Johan Persson.

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