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’ 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.