Theatre: A production that falls flat on its asp

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA NATIONAL THEATRE LONDON

THE RUMOUR mill had gone into overdrive and speculation was rife. Would Helen Mirren do a total strip for Cleopatra's death scene, or would she create the sensation of the decade by managing, for once, to keep her kit on? More seriously, there had been reports of rows, volubly dissatisfied preview audiences and intractable technical difficulties.

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

Paul Taylor

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
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
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

TV

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
comedy
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

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

Theatre
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

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

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

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    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?