Mirren's grace fails to save dud

First Night: Antony and Cleopatra National Theatre London
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The Independent Online
THE RUMOUR mill has been working overtime. Would Helen Mirren be stripping off for Cleopatra's death scene or would she be creating the sensation of the decade by managing, for once, to keep all her kit on? More seriously, there has been reports of backstage rows, volubly dissatisfied preview audiences and intractable technical difficulties.

The Olivier is a pitiless space and Antony and Cleopatra one of the most daunting tests Shakespeare ever set a director. With its geographical restlessness, its huge cast and its tricky shifting perspective on the ageing, sensually self-destructive lovers, the play is enough to make the most seasoned Shakespearean director wail - let alone a novice like Sean Mathias. When there were rumours that the production looked set to be this era's equivalent of the Peter O'Toole Macbeth fiasco, one tried not to lick one's lips.

In the event, it proved not a disaster but a dud none the less. One of the chief blights on the evening, for which the direction must take its share of the blame, is Alan Rickman's phenomenally lifeless and vocally monotonous Antony.

Apart from some perfunctory dazed staggering in the later scenes, there is little sense of the ashamed struggle in Antony between sensuality and self-esteem. As for the erotic chemistry between Rickman and Mirren, let's put it this way: it's not going to be the stuff of theatrical legend.

It is perhaps no accident that Mirren's estimable performance comes into its own, once Antony is dead. She does not achieve the infamous variety and endless elusiveness of Judi Dench's Cleopatra but she's the best thing by far in an inept production.

The National must be relieved that all 54 performances were sold out before previews began. And, yes, she does.