Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

Anthony and Cleopatra - National Theatre

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.

Antony and Cleopatra is at the National Theatre until 19 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

*Post-Show Note – this scene has now been altered.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 600 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

10 responses to “Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

  • Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse | Cultural Capital

    […] reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two […]

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    We agree on a lot of things here, and even where I differ from you the disagreements are less fundamental than they sometimes are. Your review, as usual, is far more thorough than anything I usually commit to print – and on fascinating details like costume I defer almost entirely to your greater expertise. I suppose the biggest area of disagreement is about who was the star. For me Okonedo was outstanding – especially as she skirted the borders of overacting without, in my opinion, ever straying to the wrong side – whereas you seem to favour Fiennes. It hardly matters as we agree that both were good.

    I agree about some of the poor set decisions. Locating a major scene somewhere near the ceiling is a bizarre choice – the kind of thing you see more often in the opera house (David McVicar’s Salome, for example, where there is a split set with Herod’s feast – the scene of most of the action – on a gantry many feet above the main stage where Jokanaan languishes in the cistern). I don’t know how much I missed from row B but I got a good view of the rather embarrassing hoisting up of the dying Antony. Overall, though, I thought the stage was put to good effect. I hadn’t identified Pompey’s vessel as a submarine but I’m sure you’re a better judge than me. The huge hull dominating the stage was impressive, though, whatever it was. The modern setting put a bit of a strain on suspension of disbelief, though. I ended up finding it rather silly, after seeing all the firearms, that the commanders of two large armed forces would do away with themselves using a short sword and a poisonous snake.

    “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”

    An interesting point that Shakespeare doesn’t make is that Octavian must, at the time, already have been acquainted with Livia Drusilla. Here, if conventional histories are to be believed, another example of an “alignment of status and political weight, driven by … lust” but one that, by and large, worked very well for both parties if not for some of their compatriots! The chaotic tragedy of A&C does rather amplify the romance.

    “there is something of Elizabeth I about Okonedo’s approach…”

    I agree…and you remind that, god forgive me, I imagined Okonedo voicing Miranda Richardson’s ‘Who’s queen?’ from time to time.

    “…demanding romantic attentions from the men around her and enjoying the game of courtly love without necessarily any of the commitment.”

    Power without responsibility. The prerogative, according to Stanley Baldwin, of a certain kind of woman. And as Cleo is, several times in the text, accused of being precisely that kind of woman, perhaps not a bad interpretation by S.O.

    I agree with most of your comments about the supporting cast though I fear Tunji Kasim’s Octavius hasn’t developed as well as you hoped. On the plus side I thought Gloria Obianyo’s Charmian complemented her mistress superbly.

    I’m hoping to catch a matinee on my way home after Tuesday night’s concert society (I have my eye on A Very Dark Matter but it might be a bit early for good day seats). Then I’m not back before a very concentrated stint with Pinters 4 & 5, Stories and The Silver Tassie between Nov 9 & 12.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – really glad you enjoyed this as much as I did, and its certainly nice to be in almost full agreement for once!

      I do think Sophie Okonedo was wonderful all the way through, and it was only at the end that I just wanted to know either way if she had ever really loved Antony. The ambiguity of it was brilliantly done, but it’s A&C, you want some grandeur in her death that suits the exuberance of her life. Especially as Fiennes had that stunning moment alone on a vast stage contemplating his suicide. But as a pairing I thought Okonedo and Fiennes were very nicely matched, convincing if cynically shackled to one another.

      It’s very interesting to hear how the show has changed and where there are still consistencies with the performance I saw. Shame the silly deaths aren’t better and I do see your point about their traditional modes of death compared to the military force at their disposal, but it doesn’t detract overall from a really impressive combination of cast and staging as you point out.

      I’ll respond on Measure for Measure a bit later. Just finished two weeks of film festival so catching-up a bit now.

      I’ve got some health warnings that may affect your future play choices. I’m not hearing good things about the McDonagh (I’m probably covering this and Pinter 3-4 later), and I have seen Stories which I did not like, just in case that’s useful to know, although of course we can always disagree!

  • JohnA


    ” Then I’m not back before a very concentrated stint with Pinters 4 & 5″

    Should be Pinters 3 & 4, of course.

  • JohnA

    “I’ll respond on Measure for Measure a bit later. Just finished two weeks of film festival so catching-up a bit now”

    Any time you can. I check for replies often but that’s just so I don’t miss them. I can imagine how busy you are. Sometimes I wonder where you make time for!

    “I’m not hearing good things about the McDonagh”

    That’s 1-1, then. The Polish woman I sat next to at A&C said it was very good. She also put my commitment to shame – travelling once a month from, iirc, Krakow for a theatre binge!

    ” I have seen Stories which I did not like”

    I’ve already booked as a £15 seat came up for the matinee before my Barbican ‘Silver Tassie’. I’m inclined, anyway, to see more Nina Raine after Consent. What really makes me kick myself is The Wild Duck as Robert Icke (along with Peter Konwitschny and Sarah Frankcom) is on my ‘three strikes’ list but, in my hurry to book I didn’t notice his name on the production details. I now have a fraught decision to make about the Royal Exchange Death of a Salesman because I have spotted Frankcom’s name on the credits but I really want to see Don Warrington as Willy Loman..

    • Maryam Philpott

      Sounds like both should make for interesting discussions when we’ve both seen them so I won’t say too much about Stories now then. I’ll take in the Wild Duck comments under Measure for Measure as that’s where the rest of the discussion has been.

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