The National's production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra had casting to die for. A dream team of Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren - probably the two sexiest 50-pluses in the country as well as two of the acting profession's classiest performers. It was even leaked that Helen Mirren "unwrapped" as Cleopatra in the final scene.
The box office predictably went ballistic. The production sold out before its first preview with scores of female Rickman groupies beseeching the box office manager for a seat in the front row.
At this point the National became a little over-excited, claiming it was the first play in its history to sell out before the first preview. When asked whether Laurence Olivier might well have done exactly that in the Sixties, they altered their claim to "the first play for a long time".
There was no need for unnecessary hype. London theatregoers were genuinely tantalised by the prospect of Mirren and Rickman in this passionate, intricate and powerfully elemental play.
True, odd news was emanating from the previews; news of voluble audience dissatisfaction, people walking out, technical difficulties and gossip of backstage rows between the cast and director Sean Mathias. And then last Tuesday came the first night. National Theatre artistic director Trevor Nunn sat in the back row of the stalls with a worried look on his face. He probably looked equally worried when he saw the reviews the next morning.
"The bearded Rickman," wrote the Evening Standard's critic Nicholas de Jongh, "is first seen amidst an Egyptian sea of cushions and courtiers, mounting Miss Mirren's attractive, supine Cleopatra as if she were a mare he would sooner not have got astride."
The Guardian was more measured but just as deadly, describing Mathias's production as "plodding spectacle rarely informed by powerful passion". The Daily Telegraph said "the crucial sexual chemistry on which any great production ultimately depends is fatally absent." Along with many of the papers, its reviewer Charles Spencer was partial to Helen Mirren's Cleopatra but devastatingly critical of Alan Rickman's performance, describing it as "thoroughly unengaging and at times downright lazy".
Only the Daily Mail stood apart from the pack and gave the production praise.
In trying to understand how such a foolproof venture on paper could turn into such a wretched disappointment, The Independent's Paul Taylor made two salient points. He noted that the wide spaces of the Olivier auditorium had been entrusted to a "novice" who had never directed a Shakespeare before, and he pointed out that most of the verse speaking was "wretched".
For the National Theatre, the pinnacle of Britain's theatrical establishment, to be guilty of two such charges smacks more of carelessness than misfortune.
The National was yesterday refusing to respond to any of the criticism. "We simply don't respond to reviews," said a spokeswoman, "sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad."
Sean Mathias was not making any comment. And the agents for both Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman said their clients were not responding to requests for comment.
But other insiders were less guarded. One questioned why some of the smaller parts went to relatively untried actors, including at least one from overseas, adding to the wretched verse-speaking described by Paul Taylor.
One of the biggest surprises of the National's production has been the lack of sexual chemistry between Rickman and Mirren. Michael Bogdanov, the head of the English Shakespeare Company, has his own production of Antony and Cleopatra, also running in London, at the Hackney Empire. He said yesterday: "Really, you've got to have the Burton/Taylor relationship. They were Antony and Cleopatra in real life. They beat each other up, they drank each other under the table. That's what you've got to feel. Antony has to be first and foremost a hard-drinking, hard-living soldier. It needs a director who understands what it is to be on a bender for three days."
Another leading theatrical figure, who did not wish to be named, said yesterday: "The sad thing is that this cast will attract many young people, and it might be the first Shakespeare they have seen."
But all is not gloom. All 54 performances of the production remain sold out; the public notoriously does not always agree with the critics, and there are still queues for returns - and special pleading for seats in the front rows.
Acting up a storm
"It's the first National Theatre production to sell out its entire run before the first preview." National Theatre spokeswoman.
"You can't get in but frankly I wouldn't worry. It struck me as a duff evening despite its star content." Robert Gore-Langton, Daily Express.
" Subtly, quietly, the theatre has become damned sexy ... Soon, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman will sex up the National as Antony and Cleopatra." (Evening Standard, 7 October).
"They [Rickman and Mirren] rose to erotic ardour last night with little more enthusiasm than a pair of glumly non-mating pandas at London Zoo, coaxed to do their duty." (Evening Standard, 21 October).
"Together, they [Rickman and Mirren] make the most compelling duo in one of literature's greatest love stories since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made their exotic but ... flawed film version." (Mail On Sunday, 23 August)
Rickman's rumpled, woebegone Antony sometimes left me feeling that Eeyore had been miscast as Tigger ... I did not feel a single volt of sexual electricity between [Mirren and Rickman]." (Benedict Nightingale, The Times, 21 October).