Antony & Cleopatra (National Theatre, Olivier)

Posted: September 27, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Simon Godwin


Forsaking togas and tiaras in favour of modern military uniforms and designer outfits, director Simon Godwin gives new life to William Shakespeare’s torrid account of a collision between power, politics and passion in the days of the Roman Empire. The age that it can take to perform the full version of this play may often wither the most enthusiastic of audiences, but, happily, there is no praying for a quick entrance by the asp here.

Anthony & Cleopatra combines the epic and the intimate. The Olivier Theatre is a house that always welcomes the former and challenges the latter and, if anything is missing in Godwin’s revival, it is a strong sense of the emotional hold that the central characters possess over each other. However, without significant cutting (the running time is still three hours and 30 minutes including an interval), this production’s triumph is in keeping us enthralled, at least until the particularly tricky last half hour.

At first, Ralph Fiennes’ Mark Antony has the look of a tired businessman, holidaying in Alexandria at the villa of his mistress, Sophie Okonedo’s tempestuous and capricious Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen. He receives news of his wife’s death while wearing an open beach shirt and swigging from a bottle of beer. He returns dutifully to Rome where he is part of the triumvirate running the Empire, along with Lepidus, played by Nicholas Le Provost as a pacifying but weak general, and Octavius Caesar, made by Tunji Kasim to appear as a quick-tempered, ambitious upstart bureaucrat.

The irony of the Italy of 2,000 years ago being ruled by a loose coalition and fending off the threat of invaders from the Mediterranean is not lost in this modern day version of the play. Meanwhile back in Alexandria, poolside and very drunk, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s politically motivated marriage of convenience to Caesar’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) and all but shoots the messenger, Fisayo Akinade’s splendid Eros. This and a later scene are played for broad comedy and a peace conference between the triumvirate and invader Pompey (Sargon Yelda resembling a narcissistic martinet) descends into a drunken brawl.

It is Godwin’s willingness to jettison conventional staging that gives the play modern relevance and helps it to connect with a 2018 audience. It is an approach that may make the emotional core of the drama elusive, but its dividends are paid in the currency of clarity. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderfully imaginative, but still functional set designs serve the production perfectly, with the revolving stage being used fully to avoid loss of momentum.

Tim McMullan as Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus, giving his sardonic commentary on the events, stands out in a strong ensemble. Okonedo is a radiant and wilful Cleopatra, but she reveals the depth of the Queen’s passion for Antony only in her closing scenes. Fiennes is an actor who exudes authority as soon as he walks onto a stage, yet his most memorable scenes here come when Antony’s authority is dissipating as a result of misjudgements partly caused by his obsession with Cleopatra. Fiennes strides around the stage like a fatally wounded lion, agonised by his decline and desperate to recapture the strength that is slipping away from him.

Leaving the National Theatre and glancing across the River Thames, the Palace of Westminster, scene of countless public battles and private scandals, comes into view. If nothing else, Godwin’s impressive revival brings home how little things change over time.

Performance date: 26 September 2018

Photo: Johan Persson

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

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