Play him as a twerp, Olivier says

Next week, Alan Rickman starts playing Shakespeare's Antony opposite Helen Mirren at the National. It's a difficult, contradictory role, as Robert Butler explains

He's an absolute twerp. He doesn't have a lot between the ears. He grubs around the Nile and makes a cock-up of everything. If you play him, just remember, she's got you firmly by the balls.

These were Olivier's very words about Antony in his book On Acting. And tomorrow at 7pm, Alan Rickman will stand in the wings of the theatre named after Olivier. It will be seconds before he embarks, in front of an audience of 1,100, on the first of 54 performances (eight previews, press night 20 October) as the "absolute twerp" in question. He is a face familiar to millions as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Obadiah Slope in The Barchester Chronicles. If you fancy seeing him perform live, you can forget it: only 40 day seats and returns are available. Thirty-three thousand tickets were booked from the National's mailing list alone. With no poster or print advertising, the production sold out a week before previews began.

Also in the wings at 7pm will be another face familiar to millions as Prime Suspect's Detective Chief Inspector Tennison. Helen Mirren played Cleopatra for the National Youth Theatre in 1965, and for the RSC (with Michael Gambon) in 1982. This is her first performance at the National. This is Rickman's first performance as Antony, and his first performance at the National. This is also director Sean Matthias's first Shakespeare. The production is positively virginal.

It wasn't going to be Rickman. After Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft, Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman, Julian Glover and Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Baxter and Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen and Dorothy Tutin, Alan Howard and Glenda Jackson, Denis Quilley and Diana Rigg, Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave, the next high-profile combo was going to be Mirren and Alan Bates. Bates hadn't played Antony either. But then he hurt his knee and withdrew. And Rickman stepped in.

There are nine-and-a-half lines of Shakespeare and then Rickman and Mirren are on: the world's number one power couple, circa 40BC. Immediately, in Matthias's production, we'll know if 40BC is getting the period treatment: what Hollywood executives used to call "tits and togas". Or whether the designer, Tim Hatley, and the costume designer, David Belugou, have opted for the classical world as seen through Renaissance eyes - the approach favoured by Peter Hall's 1987 production with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins - in which characters might have walked out of a painting by Veronese. Or whether we will see this couple in modern dress - with cigarettes, sunglasses, and Sam Browne belts - the choice made by Michael Bogdanov for his English Shakespeare Company production, with Tim Woodward and Cathy Tyson, which opens on Wednesday at the Hackney Empire.

David Harewood, the National's recent Othello, played Antony opposite Vanessa Redgrave in New York last year. He came on wearing a kimono. He had seen a picture of the Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman wearing a dress. "He looked very beautiful and very masculine." In Alexandria, Harewood's Antony enjoyed "another part of himself. He's revelling in his feminine side".

Ever since 1963, the opening has been tricky. That was the year which saw the release of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. "The received idea is Burton," says Richard Johnson, who played Antony for the RSC in 1972 and 1992. "And Cleopatra isn't anything to do with Shakespeare at all." Barrie Rutter played Antony for Northern Broadsides, and he agrees: "The first two scenes are the hardest. People's conception is of Burton and Taylor. They're expecting exoticism and grandeur." Whereas Shakespeare's Antony is full of contradictions. "He's complex and he's unheroic. The kind of hero for today, the fraudulent hero," says Johnson. "He's a Clintonesque figure. It's absolutely there, if you want it. Those parallels."

Within minutes, Rickman will tell Mirren that he won't leave her. "Let Rome in Tiber melt ...", etc. Then the classical world's version of the mobile phone goes off. There's a messenger, and then another, and then another. How Rickman deals with messengers will tell us how Matthias's production will present the key issue of status. As Cleopatra says of one messenger: "The man hath seen some majesty." We'll also see Rickman in a characteristic posture: receiving information. In this play, he has an awful lot to take in. "It's a play where you have to listen very carefully to what people say," says Harewood. "It has a lot of inaction. A lot of reported speech." Rickman will tell Mirren he's sorry, but he's got to get back to work. Then he'll walk off to his dressing room for three scenes while his character crosses the Ionian Sea and heads up north to Rome.

It's a good moment for a costume change. When Harewood got to Rome to meet his fellow triumvirs Octavius and Lepidus, he swapped his kimono for a big sword, a big jacket and a big hat: "Very butch. I am the man - as it were." And he is. Antony has quartered the world. He is one of its triple pillars. When he fights, we are told, his heart bursts the buckles on his breast and his eyes glow like Mars in combat gear. When he was campaigning in the Alps, supplies ran out; Antony drank horses' urine and muddy water and ate wild berries and bark from trees. "It does need a toughie," says Rutter. "You have to believe he was a good soldier and a hard drinker." If not more than that. "Historically, of course, he was a piss-poor general."

In the early scenes, the audience know the plot. "The merest schoolboy knows these two are lovers," says Johnson. One of the surprises with Antony and Cleopatra is that the lovers do not actually meet a great deal, and when they do, they are never alone. "So far as seeing them do what lovers are meant to do - hanging on to each other's necks - it's not in the play," says Johnson. And Rutter was ruthless about the goo. "I was very keen to avoid sloppy, wet, open-mouthed kissing. Directors think it's sexy. There's nothing more horrible than watching these gobs coming together. There are three kisses dictated in the script. One of them's a dying kiss and one's a peck on the cheek."

Once in Rome, the politics get tough to follow and Antony gets hard to like. "That's when the audience has to take on that the character isn't sugar and spice. There's unpleasantness there," says Johnson. Antony picks up on Agrippa's bright idea and marries Octavius's sister. "It's a political fix-up," says Johnson. "He thinks he won't have to argue with this guy any more." And, Harewood believes, "The scene between the triumvirs is a very difficult scene to pick your way through." After sweetly saying goodnight to Katia Caballero's Octavia ("that to come, shall all be done by th'rule") Rickman will turn to the audience and share a secret: "I' th' East my pleasure lies." Anthony Hopkins saw Antony as a gambler: "He thinks he can have his cake and eat it." Antony has more negotiations to go. In Bogdanov's current production, Antony, Pompey, Octavius and Lepidus sit round on ammunition boxes beneath an overhead lamp. When the dispute is settled, they go and get drunk on Pompey's barge. This can be the posh version of a knees-up down at the local taverna (calamari and retsina) or an early instance of corporate entertainment. Rickman has to lead the drinking and dance. Soon after, he heads back to Mirren.

If this was a movie or a novel, we would see Mirren greeting Rickman in Alexandria. Instead, it is straight into battle: three days of warfare in which the first casualty is the usually the director. "There's a lot of rushing around," says Johnson. "They're short scenes, they're descriptive." The battle is also at sea. "If you don't have a line through it," says Rutter, "it's just armies waving flags." Antony mustn't go gung-ho either. Anthony Hopkins changed his performance during previews, telling the production's chronicler, Tirzah Lowen: "I'd been playing it like Godzilla, shutting Judi out. Now we're going for the love, the communication between them."

Mirren will help Rickman put on his armour. "It's a terrific scene," says Johnson, "Completely human." After his defeat at Actium, we can expect Rickman's hair to be a little ruffled and his costume minimal. "I was totally dishevelled," says Harewood, "with a ripped T-shirt." In 1953, Michael Redgrave had great difficulty learning the lines. "Partly," he said, "because it's chopped up, short sentences, short phrases." This is where Antony loses it and syntax shows. "It's very difficult," says Harewood, "to get a sense of a man at a loss with his own sense of identity." Rickman will have to speak to his ex-slave Eros about clouds and vapours, and the shapes they take on. "It's almost abstract," says Harewood. "It's very hard to make the audience have a concrete idea of what you're saying." Rickman will fall on his sword and find that he isn't dead. He will then be taken to join Mirren, who has retreated to the tomb-like monument. It's a treacherous moment. As Hopkins was hoisted up to the balcony, during the second preview, the rope jammed and he only made it to the top inch by inch while the audience was laughing. Once Rickman has joined Mirren he has what Olivier described as his "fantastic final speech".

Rickman will tell Mirren "my spirit is going; /I can no more". Then he will die while she is in the middle of a sentence. The soldiers may carry Rickman off and give him 25 minutes in his dressing room before the curtain call. There are still 500 lines to go. Or Rickman could lie down on the Olivier stage and wait. "I died on stage and stayed on stage," says Harewood. "I sometimes had a little sleep."

'Antony and Cleopatra': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000), previews from Monday, opens 20 October, runs to 3 December.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence