Antony and Cleopatra is by no means a simple play. Shakespeare’s classical tale of love, war and empire spans over 42 scenes, which, if not managed properly, can easily lose the audience’s attention during its three and a half hour run time. However, this cannot be further from the case. As directed by Simon Godwin, this new truncated production is full of intense passion, touchingly tempered by sadness, where we have some of Shakespeare’s most sublime poetry.
The play is perfused with conflict: between public and private, the political and the personal. Godwin sees it as “not quite Romeo and Juliet and not quite Julius Caesar but a bit both”. It is then very fortunate that Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo were chosen for such demanding and nuanced title roles. Both won Evening Standard Theatre Awards for their performance, carrying the mantle of theatrical legends such as Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in the 1980s.
The action begins with the final scene as Octavius Caesar discovers Cleopatra’s lifeless body lying outstretched in her monument alongside her ill-fated lover. The all-encompassing darkness conveys to the audience a certain solemnity that can only be found in epic drama. It then retraces to Cleopatra’s Alexandrian palace where we discover Fiennes, loosely clad in a floral shirt with his belly displaying, revel in an air of touristy insouciance. The set is dominated by a tessellated aquamarine pool of Hildegard Bechtler’s design that would fit a boutique riad.
Okonedo, on the contrary, possesses all the radiance and confidence that one imagines the fabled ‘serpent of the Nile’ to have. In her opulent gown and flowing robes, she resembles at once a classical goddess and a cinematic star, with an untameable and fiery spirit — a queen with ‘infinite variety.’ “Cleopatra is the ultimate icon”, said Evie Gurney, the costume designer, who used contemporary cultural symbols such as Beyonce as inspiration. “My intention wasn’t to create something that looks like costume, but something that looks like high fashion.” Yet, amidst all this opulence, there is always the realisation that all this is not to last; they will never grow old together.
“A sense of failure hangs over the play,” says Godwin, and “and the trap is to play Antony like he’s a failure.” For the most part, Fiennes delivered a man of heroism and honour. As we break away from the luxurious Egypt to the austere Rome, Fiennes, too, temporarily shakes off his drunken stupor, self-indulgence and doting upon Cleopatra. We witness, as he manoeuvres with ease between the scheming Octavius and the senile Lepidus, the re-emergence of the tragic hero of the triumvirate we all root for. In one extended scene where each of the triumvirate puts on their military uniform in preparation for confronting Pompey, not a single word was uttered for two whole minutes. Instead, we were given a pulsating but dignified sequence of drum through which the unspoken pride of a once great man is made explicit.
Some half way into the first act, Fiennes sings a most moving song about old age that is not found in Shakespeare’s text. While I was enthralled by its melodious originality, I wonder if this has come too early in the play. Our hero contemplates his ‘heavy heart’ and ‘creaky knee’: has he admitted defeat to old age long before he admits defeat to Caesar? Where is the Antony who would cry “Come on, my queen; There’s sap in’t yet”? However, this portrayal of Antony as a man past his prime poignantly coincides with the actor Ralph Fiennes himself, who at the age of 56, might share a few of the same thoughts.
Okonedo’s Cleopatra matches the complexity of Antony with equal magnificence. Quick witted, capricious and passionate, she is a regal queen and more crucially, a woman very much in love. And she in love proved mad. She too suffers as duty calls Antony away from her. She too experiences the pangs of jealousy as she learns of Octavia, Antony’s newly wedded wife, and dumps the woeful messengers in her sunken pools. This makes her all the more relatable to us. In the lucid performance of Okonedo, we are reconciled with some of the seemingly irrational choices Antony and Cleopatra make: they are lovers intoxicated by their mutual adoration and tremulous desires. And for this, we may not even gently blame them. Her end comes in the form of an asp, which is substituted by a live milk snake, whose well-being is meticulously assured by members of the cast. If there is one criticism I would make of her, it is that she draws out her lines almost too much and too passionately at times, which does not allow the more tender feelings of her character to seep through. The result is that by the time of her death, a feeling of exhaustion creeps in.
Tim McMullan as Enobarbus and Katy Stephens as Agrippa give also particularly strong supporting performances. Fisayo Akinade, who played the hapless messenger, provided much of the comedy. Tunji Kasim, as Octavius Caesar, injected his youthful modernity into the play and in doing so, convincingly portrayed the scheming, ambitious politician who would defeat the great Mark Antony.
The National Theatre’s production of Antony and Cleopatra is one of those plays for which the stars have aligned. Featuring high-flying names such as Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo (and a live snake!), the play was bound to be a hit. As Antony says: [the play] “it is shaped, like it itself; and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just so high as it is” — in short, its pervading merits and occasional flaws characterise the production as one of the most original in decades.