Olivier, National Theatre – until 19 January 2018
It’s all very well for director Simon Godwin to project his Antony and Cleopatra into the modern era but for one gaping hole in the logic. Whilst the costumes and the weaponry (Kalashnikovs, really?) may be 21st century, neither the Italy nor the Egypt of today, save for their respective antiquities, resemble anything like their illustrious glories from millennia past. This play skips over the inconvenient modernities that Italy is broken and Egypt impoverished, but misquoting Mark Twain, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
And truly, this is a ripping yarn. As “a pair so famous”, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo are the titular magnificents. Perfectly cast, Fiennes the grizzled, patrician warrior Antony bears a love for Cleopatra that is almost tangible in its devotion. As much as Fiennes brings an impassioned wisdom to his role, so too does Okonedo command the stage with a powerful petulance, their mutual, eternal devotion well elicited by Godwin.
There is fine supporting work too. Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus is a work of art in itself, his description of Cleopatra’s Royal Barge and of her beauty, delivered with a rarely encountered richness. In a neat gender-twist, Katy Stephens takes on Agrippa, creating a brief but plausible chemistry with Enobarbus as she outlines her plans for Antony’s wedding to Octavia, while in Cleopatra’s court, Gloria Obianyo is a touching Charmian.
The technical values of the production offer up our National Theatre at its very best. Michael Bruce’s music (delivered beautifully by the side-staged five-piece band) draws from a variety of themes, with just a delicious hint of Ron Goodwin too during a military moment.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set design proves to be a veritable chocolate box of surprises. Making fine use of the Olivier’s drum revolve (even if some of the below level scene-shifting could be quieter) Bechtler effortlessly shifts the action to and fro across the Mediterranean, even creating an ornate pond in Cleopatra’s palace. Elsewhere, in place of his originally scripted galley, Pompey (Sargon Yelda) is given a submarine from which to command his fleet. And a nod too to the heart-warmingly cute (and non-venomous) corn snake, called upon to double as an asp, which comes close to stealing the final scene!
At three and a half hours all in Antony and Cleopatra is a long haul, but with Fiennes and Okonedo making Shakespeare’s verse sing, there are moments here to be savoured.
Runs until 19th January 2019 in repertoryTo be screened via NTLive on 6th DecemberPhoto credit: Johan Persson