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
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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.