Confession time; I’ve always found Antony and Cleopatra a bit of a slog. There, I’ve said it. Too many scenes which flit about all over the place, too many minor inconsequential characters, deaths which seem interminable. I think my bias started when I studied it for my English A Level back in 19blanketyblank – or perhaps that’s just the fate of all school texts studied in depth; I feel much the same about Henry James’s The Portrait Of A Lady. I have seen a number of productions of the play over the years but none that really lifted the curse. Perhaps the latest offering from National Theatre At Home would finally do it.
Shakespeare’s tale of doomed love and wasted opportunities is given a sumptuous production by director Simon Godwin and designer Hildegard Bechtler in which they put the Olivier’s drum revolve to full use. The Egyptian court has luxurious fabrics and colours and is dominated by a pool (yes, someone does end up in it) while the Roman HQ is all clean lines and flat screen TVs – as will be gathered this version is in modern dress. All of this is allowed to tidy away neatly for some convincing battle scenes – often a bit of a sticking point for this play – which reference recent Middle East events. Incredibly, Pompey’s galley announces itself as the prow of a submarine which seemingly breaks through the floor. The use of the revolve means that Egypt and Rome can be interchanged reasonably swiftly and physically demonstrates that they are, in effect, two sides of the same coin. The excellent lighting design of Tim Lutkin further clarifies place and time. So, I found that the staging gave far more than usual clarity to the question of where we are in any given scene.
However, any production of this play stands or falls on its central casting and in this version it is particularly strong. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo are well matched – as indeed the characters should be – both of them demonstrating “infinite variety” in their performances. Fiennes’ Antony is a grizzled veteran who cunningly adapts his persona to suit the situations in which he finds himself but is ultimately unable to regulate his behaviour when it comes to his infatuation. Okonedo captures just the right degree of regal entitlement and caprice which dominates Cleopatra’s persona; here is a woman who is used to getting what she wants but passionate when something really matters whether that be love or death.
The surrounding performances, by and large, I found less successful though I thought Fisayo Akinade as a touchingly loyal Eros and Katy Stephens’ gender swapped lieutenant Agrippa stood out. Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers also gave good performances as Cleopatra’s handmaidens particularly in the closing monument scenes. Tim McMullan’s reading of Enobarbus was far too close in tone (without the drunkenness) to his Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night a couple of weeks ago for my liking; in particular I simply didn’t buy his key speech (“the barge she sat in…”) which should, of course, be one of the lyrical highlights of the play. Tunji Kasim as Octavius Caesar I found simply annoying – although on reflection perhaps I was meant to. The crying shame of the night was Nicholas Le Provost’s woeful underuse as Lepidus; it’s a pity Shakespeare gave this character so little to do.
The thirty seven designated roles in the play have been wisely cut to twenty three and some characters, e.g. the eunuch Mardian have been dropped altogether. Others have been conflated such as the soothsayer (Hiba Elchikhe) also becoming the deliverer of the fatal basket of figs – sorry, but I did keep wondering why Claudia Winkleman had got the gig. It made no sense to me that Octavia (Hannah Morrish) was given more to do as one of the envoys to Cleopatra in the monument – why would she go and plead with a woman who has effectively wrecked her life? That said it was certainly easier to keep up with who is who than I have found in the past.
So has the A Level curse been lifted? Not quite, though this version has probably come closest to achieving that goal. Although the production addressed two of my three main concerns I’m afraid I still found the deaths interminable. Quite apart from anything else Antony and Cleopatra is a long play (this version clocks in at well over three hours) and it’s not as if most audience members don’t know that things turn out badly. Antony’s initial dithering and Cleopatra’s preparations being interrupted by numerous envoys makes for a degree of bum numbing even in the comfort of an armchair – so, close but no cigar. That said, if you don’t have my unfortunate bias and have never seen the play before you could certainly do much worse than this production.
One last small point. I couldn’t help noticing that the current tendency towards blind casting seems to have been extended to the snake which was, fascinatingly, very much alive and for which Okonedo had to learn specialist ‘wrangling’ skills. A thrilling moment, however, its size and colour pattern were all wrong. Turns out it was a milk snake, a type of constrictor, rather than a poisonous asp. There’s always one pedant!
Production photos by Johan Persson
Antony and Cleopatra is available from NT At Home until May 14th. Click here
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