After a genuinely exhilarating Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre a few months ago, Shakespeare’s subsequent tale Antony and Cleopatra has arrived at the National starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, continuing the story of the Roman Empire as the Triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius and Lepidus descends into consolidated governance under one Emperor. It’s been a big year for this particular period of ancient history, along with the West End transfer of the RSC’s two-part Robert Harris adaptation Imperium which focused on the life of Cicero, we have seen three completed separate perspectives on the same set of characters.
It has been more than two years since this production was originally announced, with Fiennes’s name already attached, and after a disastrous Macbeth in the Olivier earlier this year, the National will be keen to demonstrate that its command of Shakespearean tragedy in the most exposing of theatre spaces is untrammelled. With press night a couple of performances away, and a couple of caveats, this is already shaping up to be a very respectable and possibly even powerful staging of Shakespeare’s tragic romance.
One of the key questions Simon Godwin’s production asks is whether this was really a great love story at all. Shakespeare often leaves plenty of room for interpretation and his greatest works give the actor plenty of scope to play the role in a variety of ways. Antony and Cleopatra is particularly ambiguous, never solely categorising itself as a grand tragedy or a shrewd political piece in which two of the world’s greatest politicians create the image of love to protect their status. The very openness of the play is one of its biggest assets allowing each new interpretation to decide whether their love is real, equal and unyielding or calculatedly one-sided, cynical and desperate.
One of this production’s most notable features is just what a stylish and luxurious world set designer Hildegard Bechtler has created, superbly supported by Evie Gurney’s costumes who notably counts Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen among her former employers. The emphasis in Alexandria is on relaxed wealth, loose expensive fabrics with a subtle bohemian flavour, particularly in Cleopatra’s beautiful array of dresses comprising floaty cloaks, gauzy materials and plenty of gypsy skirting. Tonally, the colours of the Egyptian court are earthy, warm and life-enhancing, bright whites, warm oranges and terracotta, all bathed in soft yellow light.
Bechtler has created a relatively simple palace set drawing on North African architecture to create what seems like an upmarket spa complete with shallow, maze-like pool that will give someone an inevitable dunking. The whole effect reflects the allure of Cleopatra herself, of an eternal summer filled with every kind of easy joy as well stocked bars sit beside sun loungers and comfortable chairs all wrapped in a hint of exclusivity.
By contrast, the Italy led by Octavius Caesar is more formally well-appointed – tasteful, minimal and subtle but austere and almost joyless. Courtiers wear distinctly Mediterranean tailoring, styled with turtle necks, paisley silk scarves and shiny slip-on loafers. It reeks of recognisable Italian design in colder hues of navy blue, grey and, later, military khaki, while Bechtler’s set here draws on the simple marble flooring of expensive hotels. It’s sparsely decorated with odd sculptures that suggest Rome’s international reach, a collection of purloined goods from the places it has conquered. Like Cleopatra’s palace, it reflects Caesar’s own personality, slick, emotionless and ordered, the military hierarchy never far from the unforgiving surface.
Godwin’s approach is visually detailed and impressive, using all of the tricks and techniques the Olivier space has to offer. Much of the earlier part of the play uses the standard revolve to cut between Alexandria and Rome, occasionally using the foremost part of the stage to connect the action as the various sets turn into view. But as the show unfolds, Godwin becomes increasingly inventive with bolder approaches to scene setting that create some impressive spectacles and help to build an escalating tension as the story unfolds.
As submarine hatches open from the stage floor the Pompey subplot emerges, soon to be followed by the fin-like growth of a whole submarine wall curving into view, utilising the variety of the Olivier drum to striking effect. While a dividing wall reduces the stage space in almost every production these days, Godwin takes a more varied approach to the second half, and as events hasten, the shifting location becomes much more fluid, notably using the disintegrating set to mark the decline of Antony and Cleopatra’s fortunes.
Godwin reimagines the land battle between Antony and Caesar’s troops as a particularly brutal skirmish around the doorways and enclosed spaces of Actium, drawing on more fractured modern experiences of warfare in Afghanistan and Syria in a carefully coordinated sequence that takes Shakespeare’s fairly remote discussion of armies clashing out of view and giving it more tangibility. Depending on where you sit, blocks of set are occasionally obstructive which is a particular problem in one of the play’s most emotional moments, and only once is the stage completely divested of all clutter, but more on that later.
It is clear how much thought and research has gone into each scene, cleverly showcasing the detailed work behind the scenes. And while this may sound like a lot of style over substance, it’s never at the expense of the core emotional drama. Instead, every decision underlines a core plot point or personality trait that feels consistent, creating a growing anticipation across the show. Sadly, the two most important moments are so mishandled that the meticulous care taken in the rest of the production undermine what should be a shattering conclusion.
The respective deaths of Antony and Cleopatra are the climax of story which could have turned out very differently. Outmanoeuvred and outwitted the lovers are left with nowhere to run, lost to each other with their political lives destroyed, their suicides should be the most impactful moment. These take place on a poorly constructed wall and staircase that acts as proxy for Cleopatra’s monument, but in the Olivier amphitheatre where there are supposed to be no bad seats, core moments of action are completely invisible to some of the audience, taking away from the power of this double death ending that set the Roman Empire on an entirely new course.
When Antony’s bleeding body is delivered to his love it has to be awkwardly winched up to the plateau at the top of the block, requiring Fiennes to mostly heave himself up while the supporting cast shove him from underneath – most undignified. It’s horribly clunky and should be impossible for a man so close to death. Exhausted from the effort his final breath is completely obscured by the set. Likewise, the tantalising and terrifying prospect of a fairly large real snake elicits an unfortunate round of sniggers as Cleopatra’s maid struggles to return it to its receptacle.* Godwin’s approach is simpler but the lack of pomp in the Egyptian Queen’s final moments is surprisingly disappointing, splayed on the floor in a plain gown in a supposedly magnificent monument that is nothing more than a set of stairs – a shame.
As the central couple, Fiennes and Okonedo are an intriguing pairing, keeping the audience guessing on the real nature of their relationship all the way through. It certainly feels more like a cynical alignment of status and political weight, driven by exotic lust, than a pure but doomed romantic love. This ambiguity adds a fascinating power between them that drives the plot as they pursue their own agendas. There may be an implied mutual desire that sits on the surface, a need to have the other want them, but they never let their relationship prevent them from enhancing their own individual status or protecting their own skin when it suits them.
Okonedo easily has the best of it in the early scenes with a wonderfully mercurial and petulant performance, a monarch who demands the devotion of all around her. Seemingly unwilling to do anything for herself, her servants run around after her, locating Antony and awaiting the frequent calls for “Charmian.” Whether or not Shakespeare had this in mind, there is something of Elizabeth I about Okonedo’s approach, demanding romantic attentions from the men around her and enjoying the game of courtly love without necessarily any of the commitment.
When Antony leaves for Rome, this Cleopatra’s concerns seem less about being parted from the man she desires than fear of losing her protected status. Her manipulation of Antony throughout seems shrewdly calculated, wearing an air of girlish jealousy for effect while happy to abandon him when fortunes turn against them in battle. Arguably Okonedo isn’t quite adding enough variation across the production, and while it is an enjoyable performance, there is no clear insight into her motivation. Ambiguity is fine for most of the show, but for her suicide to make sense the audience needs to understand where it originates, is it the realisation that her abiding love for Antony was real after all and she cannot face a world without him or does the failure to charm Octavius, and take a third Roman ruler to her bed, signal the end of the road?
Having played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar at the Barbican back in 2005 and decided to resume the mantel more than two years ago, Fiennes portrayal of a man lost in illusions of youth and driving himself to destruction is considerably assured, and at times deeply moving. When we first meet Antony, he is ensconced in a breezy hedonistic lifestyle and dressed for a pool party in wide legged trousers and open tropical shirt. Rarely without a drink in hand, even when he first returns to Rome, Fiennes portrays a man grown mentally and physically soft, still a masculine leader, but a shadow of the great military commander he once was.
Drawn back into securing the military surety of Rome, and in league with fellow Triumvirs Lepidus and Octavius, a part of Mark Antony is awoken demonstrated by Fiennes in the boisterous party scene following peace with Pompey Junior and in the occasional display of high spirits that always separated him from the seriousness of Italy. What follows is a superb depiction of self-delusion and hopeless decline as Antony’s confidence is rocked by losses and betrayals. With diminishing options, he grows to recognise his dependence on Cleopatra – which feels more like a sexual hold than anything else – but it never stops him from pursuing the course he thinks best for Rome. Before the strangely managed end, the entire set clears from the stage and Fiennes alone holds the Olivier in his hand as Antony movingly wrestles with death. For all its reported difficulties, it’s nice to see that this room can be kept entirely in thrall by as little as a great writer and a single actor at the top of his game.
The sparsity of genuine emotion between the lovers allows Tim McMullan’s noble Enobarbus to bring real feeling and conflict to his scenes as Antony’s troubled friend – a rarity in Shakespeare to have a secondary character address the audience with small soliloquies – while good support comes from Nicholas Le Prevost’s Lepidus, Sargon Yelda’s Pompey, Fisayo Akinade’s Eros and Cleopatra’s maids Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) and Iras (Georgia Landers). Tunji Kasim’s Octavius Caesar is shaping up nicely but a touch more coldness would enhance the performance, while some thinly-veiled threat would add to the drama of his final confrontation with Cleopatra.
A long time in the making, the National Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra thoughtfully uses design and performance to build the story, heightening the tension ready for a climactic finale which in its present form doesn’t quite pay off. With two performances before press night there may not be time for remedy but that shouldn’t take away from a production that delivers on so much of its promise. After some disappointing tragedies this year (Othello and Macbeth in particular), the National can rest assured that this one was mostly worth the wait.
*Post-Show Note – this scene has now been altered.