Fiennes and Okonedo are transfixing as the ill-fated lovers.
Set in the 1st Century BC, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (see listing) explores the intersections of love, power and politics in war-torn Roman empire. As the play starts, Roman General Mark Antony has abandoned his duties at home in pursuit of a passionate affair with the notoriously beautiful and seductive Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.
In this spectacular production, director Simon Godwin posits the classic tale in contemporary surroundings, with distinct cinematic vision and magnificent performances from a diverse and energetic cast, led by example by Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the central roles.
“You did know”, despairs Antony at the height of his inevitable undoing, “How much you were my conqueror” – and we believe him. Fiennes and Okonedo are transfixing as the ill-fated lovers.
Okonedo arrives fully loaded as Cleopatra; at once powerful, majestic, cunning and fragile. With her arms outstretched, draped in regal white tunic, and her hair glowing gold in the stage lights, Cleopatra’s dominion is palpable. And yet, in the private company of her ladies-in-waiting, Okonedo invests the character with credible and charming vulnerability.
From his first appearance – drunk, half-dressed, toenails painted, and intertwined with Cleopatra on the palace floor – Fiennes’s performance as Antony is a pleasingly solid match to Okonedo. Fiennes paces the character’s emotional unravelling well, so that even the farcical melodrama of this Shakespearean tragedy achieves affecting plausibility in his command.
The ensemble cast all deliver strong performances to the extent that it feels unfair to pick only some out for special mention. That said, Gloria Obianyo is particularly enjoyable as Cleopatra’s chief lady-in-waiting, Charmian. She brings much depth and personality to the role well beyond the character’s comparatively limited dialogue. Similarly, Fisayo Akinade as Antony’s attendant Eros carries some of the play’s most funny and moving moments, whilst at other times maintaining a notably engaging presence on stage.
The entire production oozes with style, at times looking more like a GQ cover shoot
The tragic trajectory of the central relationship is aided somewhat by Hildegard Bechtler’s superb set design. Cleopatra’s Alexandria palace is reminiscent of the sort of opulent 1980s luxury villas inhabited, pre-downfall, by high-flying drug lords in gangster biopics; all gold leaf and turquoise swimming pools. The intoxicating hedonistic allure of ‘Egypt’ is set in clear contrast against the austere marble greys of ministerial Rome. Infused with Evie Gurney’s costume design, the entire production oozes with style, at times looking more like a GQ cover shoot.
The Hollywood-esque production values continue throughout. A revolving set is used to great effect to create constant momentum on-stage and some genuinely exciting sequences of modern-day warfare (including hi-tech strategy rooms, imposing warships and running street battles). This unremitting kinetic energy keeps the production enthusing to the end, despite its generous three and a half hour running time.
Need to know: Antony and Cleopatra is at the National Theatre until 19 Jan 2019 and will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on 6th December 2018 | see listing / book tickets