Olivier, National Theatre – until 19 January 2018
Big, lush, classic Shakespeare isn’t something I’ve seen too much of recently. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a value judgement. I’m not one of those people who thinks any ‘type’ of Shakespeare production is better than any other. I cannot abide modern dress or traditional dress bores or people who spend their entire evenings apparently with a metronome out to check that the pentameter is in fact iambic.
I just like good Shakespeare, you know? Shakespeare productions that tell the story and have something to say and, bluntly, aren’t boring or pretentious nonsense. Something which is actually quite hard to find.
One of the places where it has been notably hard to find of late is the National Theatre. Remember Macbeth? I mean, ugh. However, redemption is at hand. Enter Simon Godwin – one of my absolute favourite directors – accompanied by Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo and a copy of Antony and Cleopatra.
I mean, need I say more? Do I even have to write this post? A top-flight director, a classic play and a cast that is an absolute dream. There is so little to go wrong here, and so little does. This is a solid, classy and huge production that ticks pretty much all the boxes.
Antony and Cleopatra isn’t a play I knew before and I wouldn’t say it’s now become one of my favourites. But it’s an exciting one nonetheless; the mixture of politics and personal is super compelling. And of course, there are some classic Shakespeare lines to chew on.
Godwin’s production is absolutely top drawer. It’s fair to say there’s not much that’s massively innovative on display but it doesn’t much matter. Because what is on display is so utterly sure-footed, classy and beautifully done that you absolutely cannot argue with it.
Godwin’s direction is bang on. The production never rushes but also never feels the three and a half hours that it is. It’s unashamedly big and sweeping but can do small and intimate too. Hildegard Bechtler’s design, making full use of the Olivier stage’s glorious drum, is a cracker. Pitched somewhere between Keeping Up with the Kardashians and peak 1970s – which is actually the best combination for the central characters if you think about it – I want to live in the set. Evie Gurney’s costumes accent it perfectly: so much print and so much draping. Tim Lutkin’s lighting is beautiful and stark. Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell’s movement is really clever. It’s a perfectly wrought production for the vast Olivier. It uses the stage so well.
As do the actors. There’s something thrilling about seeing actors of the calibre of Fiennes and Okonedo on a stage as big – metaphorically and literally – as the Olivier. It sort of goes without saying that they’re both great. Fiennes is a classic Shakespearean and his style, which has a certain formality to it, works for the meaty, military parts like Mark Antony. He has a great sense of mischief too, his reaction to his failed suicide attempt is a surprising and joyously unexpected laugh out loud moment. (To be clear, though, David Morrissey is still my Antony.) Okonedo revels in the high camp of Cleopatra and is as majestic and Queenly as required and then some. The chemistry, based to a huge degree on shared mischief, between her and Fiennes is supremely watchable. And she handles a snake with incredible chutzpah (as the only person in the centre of the theatre blogger-animal welfare charity staffer venn diagram though, I have to ask whether a real snake was actually necessary).
There’s much joy to be found away from the central characters too. Tim McMullan is a perfect Enobarbus, wise and wry and, ultimately, rather tragic. McMullan is superb in everything he does (even in Common, which was appalling) and here I reckon he might be the pick of the bunch. Which is going some. Credit too to the younger cast, in particular Fisayo Akinade who does fantastic things with the relatively uninteresting part of Eros. His comic timing is excellent. Gloria Obianyo as Charmian is great too, dripping charisma and sass. She dealt with an errant snake with incredible poise and calmness the night I saw the show (again, a real snake?)
Reservations about the snake aside, there is really very little to fault in this Antony and Cleopatra. It’s lush, epic and a piece of sheer class. Better than that, it’s that rare theatrical beast: a god production in the Olivier. Praise be!
Antony and Cleopatra plays in the Olivier at the NT on selected dates until 19th January. Tickets are not plentiful, but it does get the NTLive treatment on the 6th December.
I sat in seat F1 in the stalls for this show, which I saw in preview. I paid £29 and I will fight anyone who tells me that that isn’t supreme value for money.