Politics and passion are violently intertwined in Shakespeare’s gripping tale of power Antony & Cleopatra, which is thrillingly brought to life in Simon Goodwin’s masterly new production at the National ‘s Olivier Theatre.
Caesar and his assassins are dead. General Mark Antony now rules alongside his fellow defenders of Rome. But at the fringes of a war-torn empire, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony have fallen fiercely in love. In a tragic fight between devotion and duty, obsession becomes a catalyst for war.
Although the epic scale of the play remains – it’s three and a half hours long – director Simon Goodwin treads a careful path through the thorny plot and gives a contemporary twist to its story of East-meets-West. The production itself begins with a prologue foreshadowing the final scene with Cleopatra stretched out lifeless on her monument. It’s swept aside by the giddy hedonism of her Alexandria Court, elegantly conjured up in Hildegard Bechtler’s inventive design. The distinction between Egypt and Rome is vividly conveyed: the former all tessellate opulence and sunken pools, the latter a military war-room with the latest satellite technology and tasteful displays of art masks and cultural figures.
But this modern dress production is not fault-free. There are distracting video screens showing violent clashes and mortar blasts reminding us of modern Middle Eastern conflicts, which only serve to divert attention away from the focus of the drama. There is also an unnecessary gender switch, with Agrippa becoming a smugly efficient, tough-talking woman. Nevertheless, this is a production that is full of detail, intelligence and humanity.
It is however the two central performances that make this production so fascinating. Sophie Okonedo, in particular, is magnificent as the fiercely mercurial Cleopatra, one moment a tigress, the next sensual and witty, effortlessly bringing out the Egyptian Queen’s mixture of ardour and irony. Ralph Fiennes is no less impressive as Mark Antony, giving us every aspect of the man’s flawed character: the born soldier, the dreaming sensualist, and the wry joker in the scene on Pompey’s galley. But he is at his best in charting Anthony’s decline, capturing his shame after the battle of Actium, and he has the capacity to illuminate every phrase; when he says “this pine is barked (ie stripped) that overtopped them all” he gives an unforgettable image of a man confronting his own desolation. Indeed Fiennes and Okonedo achieve a simmering chemistry and their push-pull relationship always has an air of change, yet it’s also a thing of beauty with moments of quivering delight.
Strong support comes from Nicholas Le Prevost as a world weary Lepidus, Tunji Kasim as a sinewy Caesar, Sargon Yelda a flamboyant Pompey, Tim McMullan a tragic jaded Enobarbus saddened by his betrayal of an Antony he once adored, and Fisayo Akinade, who brings some deliciously understated humour as Antony’s loyal attendant Eros.
In short then this absorbing, clear sighted production is both epic and intimate and acts as a warning that world leaders are only too human and that passion and politics are best kept apart.
Antony & Cleopatra
Runs until Saturday 19 January 2019 at the Olivier Auditorium, National Theatre.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: April 6, 2021