The National Theatre managed to significantly redeem itself here and prove that this spring’s Macbeth was a blot on an otherwise impressive run of thoughtful and striking Shakespeare adaptations which bring the star power of their cast to bear on the greats.
This production chose to begin at the end – with a stage set as a simple Egyptian mastaba strewn with the bodies of dead women and Caesar’s speech in memorial. Which I was a little perplexed by, as a choice – it makes Antony and Cleopatra’s downfall seem more inevitable, less the messy and avoidable tragedy it should be, and takes all of our enjoyment out of the first few scenes when the pair are at their most beguiling. A shame, because my goodness as a cold open the stunning scenery of Cleopatra’s palace – opulent textured teal tiles, indoor pools, tropical garden furniture – would have absolutely hit you in the face. As indeed would Antony’s bare chest* and his astonishing wrap-around trousers – which I couldn’t get my head around at all. (By way of contrast – and I’m getting this out of the way now, rather than mentioning it all the way through – EVERY SINGLE ONE of Sophie Okonedo’s outfits was some kind of stunning gold or white confection that made me damn sure it was worthwhile to be a queen, if only for the fashion. Seriously EVERY SINGLE ONE. There’s a wonderful short film about them here which shows some of the magic, but only a little taste I’m afraid!)
The opening scenes gave us an amazingly playful pair in Antony and Cleopatra – but one with a very believable romance. Ralph Fiennes’s Antony was, to my mind, a man on a seriously late gap year – his time with Cleopatra all about avoiding real life elsewhere, and the closer that life pressed, the deeper his love. Cleopatra seemed to me to be consciously overplaying her love – her grand gestures having a play-acting air that was her attempt to pretend (to us, or to herself?) that she wasn’t as madly as love as she acted. But she definitely was…
While beautiful, it was a tiny, intimate court Cleopatra ruled over. The only other people we saw in it were her handmaids, Iras and Charmian, played by Georgia Landers and Gloria Obianyo respectively, Hiba Elchikhe as the soothsayer**, and those pesky interruptions from Rome. It made for a faintly claustrophobic court, where Cleopatra’s and Antony’s love could reverberate in an echo chamber into the highest, most destructive form, but it meant that Cleopatra’s majesty (which Sophie Okonedo had in spades) also felt a little reduced when her imperiousness extended to such a small circle of people.
Tim McMullan as Enobarbus provided an ongoing snarky presence in Egypt and in Rome – his byplay with Katy Stephens’s Agrippa was a particular delight and had a wonderful feeling of old friendship that almost single-handedly carried the political backstory. Rome itself was a wonderful, marble-corporate contrast to the colour of Alexandria, with a much stonier set of people. Tunji Kasim’s Caesar*** came across as deeply embarrassed by Antony’s lack of continence, and at his best when scheming with Hannah Morrish’s cool-as-cucumber Octavia****.
I loved the way the triumvirate (and their followers) were represented by the three different branches of military (even if I don’t remember which is which) and to throw Pompey into the mix as the leader of a group of submariners was genius – the scenes on board his galley/nautilus were among the funniest and cleverest in the whole piece. It brought Antony back onto solid ground as a general, providing him a purpose which took him away from Cleopatra and thereby hastening their downfall. It also helped to make the war scenes more believable, even as they were a horrible contrast with that bright and brilliant Egypt we saw in the first half, those beautiful tiles cracked and marred with gunshot and the singing replaced with explosions. And it also made it a relief to get back to the quiet calm of the mastaba – the only storms and tempests there what Cleopatra could manage, a world which she could safely control – even Caesar as he came within her orbit was her tool and not (as he thought) her master. Sophie Okonedo was fabulous in those final scenes – immortal longings indeed! – and even the use of a real live snake (the right choice, but often a distracting one) enhanced her stateliness*****. Much like Richard II, she was never more majestic than when she was least powerful.
So all in all it was a very fine production – but one which seemed to rely on making Cleopatra a powerful personal figure but politically nothing. Interestingly enough, this also meant she far eclipsed her Antony – he never seemed to bestride the reflecting pool, let alone the oceans, and was out-smarted by Caesar and Octavia, out-honoured by Enobarbus, as well as out-majestied by Cleopatra. Ah well. It’s not a tragedy I mind.
* The second production I’ve seen to open with a late middle-aged, bare-chested Antony. I’ve checked the stage directions and his attire is not specified. Why do they all seem to think this the best way to show he’s “gone native”???
** She also gave us some of the stunning musical accompaniment – another thing the National always does very well.
*** Was I the only one who kept trying to map these characters onto the one I saw in the RSC’s Imperium two-nighter earlier this year? Kept me extra entertained…
**** I don’t think that was in the text, but it definitely worked – and it means Hannah Morrish is carving out a wonderful niche – between this and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus – as intelligent young Roman matrons. Would love to see her spread her wings in 2019 though!
***** I am not sure if it was Larry, Hondo, Mr Jangles or Pork Pie acting the asp the night I was there, but whoever it was they did a great job.