Image copyright Johan Persson
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare – National Theatre (Olivier), London
Antony and Cleopatra is a tough play to stage. It demands a great deal of the audience, often keeping them at arm’s length from the frequently frustrating main characters, and with a strange change of pace from a decade-leaping first half to a minute-by-minute second half. It succeeds or fails with its leads. Cleopatra is the biggest woman’s role in Shakespeare and Mark Antony has more lines than King Lear, Macbeth, Henry V or Richard II. Fortunately, the National Theatre’s production has cast the leads to perfection, and it is hard to imagine a better account of this strange play.
Ralph Fiennes could have been born to play Antony. His general is an aging hipster, used to gliding through life on his charm. When we meet him, he is just too old to get away with that any more, although he is still wearing the open shirts and ludicrous trousers. The exquisitely awkward capers and weird dramatic handshakes that form part of his public performance diminish him, and it is clear he is doomed from the start, although he has no idea. His self-regard, and emotional manipulation of those around him means he is simply unable to see reality outside of himself. In this he is matched only by Cleopatra, who he deserves as she deserves him. Emotional manipulation is her only weapon, but in Sophie Okonedo’s performance her charm, undeniable and hard to resist, but she has a child-like, damaged aspect too. Alone in her palace with no-one but Iras and Charmian, Okonedo seems even less moored to reality than Antony. Her final gesture, pretending to be dead, is an appalling thing to do and only Antony would see it in any other way. The two are consummate performers, but their only audience is themselves and one another.
Antony and Cleopatra is a play about the gap between the legend and the reality. Fiennes and Okonedo give triumphant peformances, utterly convincing as people who believe their own press. The only hope for them is to launch their immortality through death. The grim sequence of events as Antony tries to outsource his suicide, then botches it, and then spends his final moments being hauled up on an Ancient Egyptian winch, are painful and absurd to watch. Cleopatra, alone with her handmaids, makes a better end – with an excellent snake – surely it can’t be real? It is real! – but the production highlights the futility of their deaths, as Caesar instantly repackages events, standing over their bodies as he uses them to secure himself in power.
Simon Godwin’s production makes excellent use of the Olivier’s expanses, the perfect theatre for this epic. Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are stunning, with hotel Deco opulence, an on-stage pool and a submarine (Pompey’s galley) that rises monumentally from the revolve. The cast is something of a National Theatre classic line-up. Tim McMullan, singled out by Nicholas Hytner in his memoirs as the fulcrum for his time at the NT, is a highly likeable Enobarbus. Katy Stephens is, as always, excellent as the gender-swapped Agrippa, a clever move from the director that opens up hints of a relationship with Enobarbus. Tunji Kasim is both calculating and involved as Caesar, while Nicholas Le Prevost is an ideal stumbling Lepidus. The production, opulent and uncompromising, is the sort of showcase the National Theatre produces better than any other theatre.