The Olivier is a pitiless space and Antony and Cleopatra a daunting test. With its geographical restlessness, its huge cast and its tricky, quivering perspective on the ageing, sensually destructive lovers, the play is an intrepid choice for any director, let alone someone coming new to Shakespeare, as Sean Mathias is here. There were murmurs that the production looked set to be this era's equivalent of the infamous Peter O'Toole Macbeth fiasco. Ambulance chasers licked their lips.
In the event, this Antony and Cleopatra is not the biggest asp disaster in the world, just a resounding dud. One of the chief blights on the evening, for which the direction bears a heavy responsibility, is Alan Rickman's phenomenally lifeless and vocally monotonous Antony. There's a witty joke in the staging of the first scene here: when the hero grandly proclaims that he and Cleopatra "stand up peerless", the remark is undercut and the couple's myth neatly marked by his collapsing leglessly back down onto a sybaritic pile of cushions. Alas, the rest of Rickman's performance suggests that he only ever rises from this indolent posture with extreme reluctance.
A naturally phlegmatic and sardonic actor, he communicates here all the galvanising charisma of a deceased halibut. How could such a lacklustre figure have inspired intense love and loyalty in his troops? And, apart from some perfunctory dazed staggering in the later scenes, Rickman also fails to express with any intensity whatsoever the shame-scorched struggle in Anthony between his sensuality and his Roman self-esteem.
As for the Rickman-Mirren erotic chemistry - let's put it this way, it isn't going to become the stuff of theatrical legend. Here you feel it's not just because of the glorious text that Mirren's fine performance comes into its own only when Antony is safely dead. The lightning volte-faces of Cleopatra's capricious, calculating temperament are communicated with drop-dead comic timing. One second, she's heaving with convulsions of theatrical grief at Antony's projected departure, the next she's riling him with a provocative display of airy social brightness. The quieter moments are just as telling. In the monument (evoked by curved cages of shelves with hundreds of glimmering candles), her Cleopatra attains a calm transcendence over contradiction. She is never more touchingly vulnerable than when - in death and via one brief flash of nudity - she achieves the invulnerability of a golden artwork.
The squalid and the sublime, the courtesan and the queen: Mirren's Cleopatra doesn't have the endless unresolvability of Judi Dench's but it's by far the best feature of this inept production. The set is ugly and boxed-in: a revolve under a semi-circle of sliding panels that keep putting you in mind of the squares on a celebrity quiz show. It's a design that shrinks from utilising the full epic dimensions of the Olivier. There's little focus or animation in the large-scale scenes and the verse speaking is mostly wretched.
The National must be relieved that all 54 performances of this production were sold out before previews began.
A version of this review appeared in the later editions of yesterday's paper