You’ll find an installation called “Cleopatra’s Bazaar” in the National Theatre‘s bookshop at the moment. There are (among other things) gilded palm leaves, stuffed birds in exotic hues and an upmarket apron that quotes Enobarbus on the insatiable craving the Egyptian queen arouses: “Other women cloy/The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies”.
If this trove is meant to stir curiosity about the show now in the Olivier, it has to be said it’s a somewhat misleading one. Simon Godwin’s astute and moving modern-dress production of Antony & Cleopatra succeeds in conveying the cultural differences between Rome and Egypt without ever resorting to the condescension of kitsch. This is a penetrating and considered account of a complex, twisty play.
That it comes across with such walloping emotional immediacy is thanks to the blazing star power of Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. Two legends, increasingly conscious that they are both past their prime, Antony and Cleopatra rev up their fabled relationship with beautiful, bare-faced hyperbole: “Eternity was in our lips and eyes...”
But I don’t think that I have ever heard the genuine need that drives all this exaggeration expressed with more potency than here in this pair’s remarkably spontaneous verse-speaking.
Godwin’s production begins with the final scene as Octavius Caesar discovers Cleopatra stretched out lifeless on her monument having chosen suicide over the humiliation of being his imperialist trophy. It then backtracks in time and place to the Queen’s sybaritic Alexandrian court with its turquoise pool – one of the excellent revolving sets by Hildegard Bechtler.
Lounging like a paunchy, beer-swigging tourist chez Cleopatra, Antony is summarily summoned back to chic, clinical Rome and a meeting with his fellow triumvirs amidst cool marble and an elegant display of primitive masks and sculptures (doubtless a swathe of imperial plunder).
The production excellently intertwines the intricacies of political manoeuvring and the preoccupations of the central pair. Concerned about ageing, Antony gets to perform a creaky-kneed jig and sing a song about how “no power halts the turning page” during the calculatedly chaotic (and rather homosocial) revels on Pompey’s barge.
Fiennes is brilliant at communicating the scalding, ranting shame that Antony feels at corrupting men through his military failures. To his perception, it’s as though the earth is disdaining his tread.
Romans are supposed to be experts in the art of dying so it’s an excruciating irony (one which raises a laugh in the expertly managed sequence here without derailing the play) that Antony bungles his own suicide and that it’s left to Cleopatra to do it “after the high Roman fashion” when she stage-manages her death to defy the most powerful Roman of them all.
Okonedo has extraordinary comic command of the Queen’s bouts of capriciousness in the earlier scenes (irascibly dunking the head of a messenger who brings news of Antony) but she is superbly vulnerable as well as determined when she assumes her royal robes and prepares for her apotheosis under Tim Lutkin’s intense orange light.
I could wish that the scene had not been slightly cut because Okonedo negotiates it with such humane fluidity, as her character resolves to trick Caesar and to convey the immensity that was Antony. The episode is desperately sad – a mood neither enhanced nor mitigated by the fact that there is an alarming, real live snake on the case.
Video footage of riot-shield clashes and a crescendo of mortar blasts in bombed-out streets give the proceedings a strong whiff of contemporary middle-eastern disputes. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus and Katy Stephens as Agrippa give particularly strong supporting performances. Most captivating of all is Fisayo Akinade who is perfection in the roles of a luckless messenger and hapless armourer.
There will be a live broadcast of this production in cinemas on 6 December. If you can’t get to the National, it’s not to be missed.
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