A case of hype and fall as Rickman and Mirren are put to the sword

IT WAS the most eagerly anticipated production of the year. It turned into the biggest disappointment. And at the National Theatre this weekend they are digesting some of the worst reviews for years and reports of walk-outs, and asking themselves how it all went so horribly wrong.

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

THE HYPE

"It's the first National Theatre production to sell out its entire run before the first preview." National Theatre spokeswoman.

THE CRITIC

"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.

THE HYPE

" 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).

THE CRITIC

"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).

THE HYPE

"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)

THE CRITIC

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).

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete tomorrow
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
News
i100
Sport
footballSporting Lisbon take on Chelsea as Manchester City host Roma
News
people
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films
News
businessForbes 400 list released
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
News
peopleSwimmer also charged with crossing double land lines and excessive speeding
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MANCHESTER - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION -

Highly Attractive Pakage: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - A highly attractive oppor...

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Day In a Page

Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy