December 7, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre/NT Live) @ Broadway Cinema
In November, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo became the first pair of co-leads in over thirty years to win the two Best Actor prizes at the Evening Standard Theatre awards. The casting alone, perhaps, made this not entirely unexpected; two Oscar-nominated actors in a big prestige National Theatre production directed by Simon Godwin, in one of his final productions before moving to take up the artistic directorship of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Everything about the production smacked of quality, from the spectacular ascending sets to the enormous live snake to the timely-yet-suitably-non-specific allusions to contemporary global warfare. Like Cleopatra itself, it dressed for success.
For all the adulation the production has received, though, it took a long time to get going, falling into the well-worn grooves of Antony and Cleopatras past and only belatedly revealing its innovations. The emphasis in the live screening on costumes in both pre-show and interval features was telling, as costume designer Evie Gurney explained Cleopatra’s couture wardrobe. For the first half, interpretive interest was rooted in the look of the piece, with the division made between Egypt – marked by flowing clothes and an enormous ornate water feature that characters strode around and through – and Rome, distinguished by display screens and military uniforms. Egypt was lit in warm yellows, Rome in cold blues, the exotic and the mundane placed into oppositional contrast. So far, so expected.
The production opened with Cleopatra’s body onstage and Octavius (Tunji Kasim) and Agrippa (Katy Stephens) standing as representaive of the Western military complex, establishing their triumph on their own terms to an unseen global audience. But as the monument on which they stood rotated out of sight, Antony entered and lay down with Cleopatra’s body, kissing her and bringing her back into the play’s opening scene. The effect was to recast the play as an end-of-life biopic, the memory of Cleopatra’s body a spectre that reminded the audience where this was heading, even if in practice it made very little difference to the performance.
Fiennes and Okonedo were consistently excellent throughout, though suffered somewhat (Okonedo especially) from NT Live’s ongoing issue with dynamics; the projection needed to fill the Olivier Theatre still comes across as VERY SHOUTY on the cinema screen, flattening much of the nuance. Fiennes gave a generous performance, his Antony reminding me of an off-duty rock star (echoing his A Bigger Splash character, perhaps) as he staggered/swaggered around, belly hanging out over a towel wrapped around his waist as he grabbed bottles of beer and rambled. When back in military uniform to meet Octavius and Lepidus he slouched, a former hero gone to seed who nonetheless could still bring out the power when he needed to. But I was struck by Fiennes playing Antony as a man who spends as much time listening as speaking, and in his most moving sequence he asked the household servants to sit on the floor with him as he almost pleaded for them to look after themselves. His charismatic performance of solidarity gave a sense of the man that this Antony used to be.
Okonedo, meanwhile, pitched her Cleopatra high from the start and never looked back. The most immediately iconic scene was her appearance in Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ dress as she swigged from a bottle of champagne, demanding Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) and Iras (Georgia Landers) dance (first time I’ve seen the floss in a Shakespeare production), yet Cleopatra’s diva-ish tendencies were carefully managed by Okonedo in a performance that captured a range of desperation, hope and denial as the imagined clock counted down to her death. Okonedo was rarely quiet, filling the Egypt scenes with noise and movement and ensuring her attendants (limited to the two women, with Alexas cut) were moving constantly to keep up with her. There was a mature balance of humour and terror; the comedy of the messenger scene was undercut by the viciousness of the fall Eros suffered into the water feature as Cleopatra pursued him, while the fury of her outrage at various points was always softened by Cleopatra herself stepping back from the brink. The dynamic also meant that she seemed genuinely fearful of Antony on those rare occasions when he did stir himself to greater anger, and Okonedo’s Cleopatra came into her own in the moments of self-defence when she rallied herself and her followers to desperate action.
As I’ve found before with Antony and Cleopatra, however, the more innovative choices came once the basic structure and the two leads had been established, and the smaller roles came to the fore. The absolute standout was Katy Stephens as Agrippa. As Octavius’s right-hand woman, she shifted between business dress and full military uniform (Antony, Octavius and Lepidus were coded as army, navy, air force) as a kind of Maria Hill figure, leading the briefings and assuming almost as much dominance as the figurehead Octavius. Agrippa knew Enobarbus (Tim McMullan) of old, and their conversation suggested past flirtations which were implied to be consummated again during the summit of the leaders. Yet Agrippa’s savviness about politics ensured that she never lost sight of the prize, whether orchestrating the marriage of Antony and Octavia or overseeing the surrender of Cleopatra. That Agrippa was given such prominence at the start of the production drew attention to the importance of the play’s second-in-commands.
Similar intelligent treatments of relatively minor characters characterised the rest of the production. While the shifting set was fussy and cluttered, the rising of Pompey’s enormous submarine from the centre of the stage was genuinely spectacular, and Sargon Yelda offered a surprisingly entertaining and comic Pompey, who revelled in his moments of power and ingratiated himself with his enemies, much to the displeasure of machete-wielding pirate Menas (Gerald Gyimah). While the co-option of images of Somalian pirates seemed a mis-step for the production in terms of its coherence, the relationship between the politically minded Pompey and the more aggressive Menas added a charge to the drinking scene.
The expansion of Eros’s role is not new (indeed, Stephens played an extraordinary Eros for Michael Boyd some years ago), and Fisayo Akinade was one of the other highlights. Eros went back and forth between Rome and Italy carrying messages, and took on the role of the haplessly abused messenger who reports on Antony’s marriage. The production established a burgeoning relationship between Eros and Iras, who kissed him on the cheek as she gave him gold and appeared with him at other times. The development of the character added real pathos to his death scene, with the audience at the screening I attended crying out in horror as Eros ran towards Antony with knife, then doubled back and desperately plunged the knife into his own stomach. It was then Iras instead of Diomedes who arrived to report Cleopatra’s survival after Antony’s bathetic attempt at suicide; frustratingly, the screen director kept the camera’s unbroken focus on Antony, but Iras had been looking repeatedly over at Eros’s body, and it seemed as though she took a moment with that body before walking back upstage; a poor judgement on the part of screen director Tony Grech-Smith to obscure what was happening at this point.
There were less successful performances. McMullan’s very distinctive drawl (which made him perfect for Jacques at the Globe some years ago) worked well for Enobarbus’s early scenes, slurring his words together as if permanently drunk, and adding an edge loucheness to the Egypt scenes; his sincerity, disillusionment, defection and death, however, felt more forced and anticlimactic. Hiba Elchikhe did good work as the Soothsayer, returning to note the withdrawal of Hercules and also to deliver the asp, but was somewhat abrupt in her delivery, and her status in the world wasn’t quite clear to me. And Hannah Morrish had a hugely extended role as Octavia, playing a quiet and calming presence to Antony and suggesting a partnership that had emotional significance for both of them. The impulse to extend her role so that she accompanied Octavius and Agrippa in their wars was an interesting one, though rather added to her as a silent presence; this built up to a decision to have her take Dolabella’s role in the monument. The idea was excellent, allowing the two wives of Antony to sit together and for Octavia to come to some kind of peace with Cleopatra’s love of Antony. But neither the enormous gap between this scene and Octavia’s last speaking part, nor Dolabella’s dialogue, were enough to support the emotional baggage that this decision brought, and the sacrifice of attention on Cleopatra at the climax for a relatively small gain in an implied arc for Octavia didn’t feel worth it to me.
The final sequence, though, properly put Cleopatra at the undisputed centre. Dressed in simple but gorgeous crown and cloak by Iras and Charmian, Okonedo assumed a majesty and dignity that approached the epic. Landers’s performance of Iras’s death was sudden and moving, she slumping forward into her mistress’s lap in a way that recalled an earlier moving moment where Cleopatra had curled up in Charmian’s embrace to mourn Antony’s loss. And the enormous, bright red snake that Charmian and Cleopatra handled was frightening and inspiring (even if it did stilt Charmian’s performance slightly in a couple of the necessary attempts to retrieve and dispose of it), causing another cry from the cinema audience as it darted forward to touch Cleopatra’s neck. The sense of loss was palpable, and a fitting close to a quality production.