Simon Godwin delivers a great big fuck-off Shakespeare at the National, and it’s everything you’d expect it to be.
Antony and Cleopatra is perhaps the most notoriously difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage, a gauntlet that is snatched up and carried off by the National and Godwin in the new production starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. If anyone is up to delivering this dramatic behemoth with aplomb, then it must be the National: the sheer magnitude of manpower and production value required to do it properly is staggering.
The text is one that doesn’t neatly fit into any traditional genre; it is not quite a history, nor a comedy, nor a tragedy. The production embraces this multifariousness; it plays up the various dynamic tensions of east and west, lover and statesman, luxuriating in the dualities therein. The decadence of Cleopatra’s Egyptian palace is emphasised by a lavish spa-like set; meanwhile the crisp lines and hard-edged sleek marble of Rome is no less grand, but conveys an air of elegant minimalist modernity.
The decision to set the production in an “imagined present” is an intriguing one, allowing for a faithful yet modern telling that subtly touches on current affairs, most notably in the inclusion of footage of what looks to be the Arab Spring playing on a flat screen TV in the Roman situation room. One of Okenedo’s many costumes is a dress identical to Beyoncé’s iconic bright yellow flouncy ‘Lemonade’ dress. Costume designer Evie Gurney thereby draws a real-world parallel between Queen Cleo and Queen Bey in the image of the wronged black woman – it is surely no coincidence that Okenedo dons this dress for the scene in which she learns of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, and of her subsequent glorious tirade (the brunt of which is borne by the brilliant Fisayo Akinado’s Eros).
Gurney’s costumes are on the whole magnificent, especially those worn by Okenedo. Fiennes’ Antony appears more at home in his soldier’s uniform than in the open-shirted, baggy-trousered ‘politician on holiday’ look we first see him in. Later in the play, whilst Fiennes’ middle-aged paunch is covered up in layers of protective armour, Okenedo wears a slinky silken slip dress so flimsy that it reveals the outline of the defined, muscular physique beneath. This parallel is evocative of their characters – Fiennes appears the tough-man but is ultimately weak, whereas Cleo’s histrionics have real calculated power underlying them. The contrast is both clever and evocative of their respective characterisations and demonstrates truly masterful costume design.
Okenedo’s Cleopatra is every bit the queen and this production luxuriates in her majesty. Her performance far outshines that of Fiennes, which is a more understated and slightly tired portrayal of the old soldier. Ralph Fiennes’ stage combat is a little wooden, but it fits with his portrayal of Antony as a middle-aged warrior who is past his prime.
Hildergard Bechtler’s staging makes phenomenal use of the apparently depthless Olivier Theatre, with a seemingly endless rotation of humongous pieces of set emerging from the ground. There are explosions, a swimming pool, half a submarine, and a real – and rather terrifying – snake!
Yet despite its grandiosity, and however well performed, it fails to challenge its audience in any way. Our present is referenced, but not spoken to; touched upon, rather than confronted. This is both the cleverness of setting it in the aforementioned “imagined present” and its one downfall.
Ultimately though, this production is definitely one to catch if you can, if for nothing other than the splendiferous magnitude of it. If you can’t make it down to the National (or you think the prices are a bit steep) then you can catch it when it is broadcast in cinemas as part of National Theatre Live on 6 December.
Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the Olivier Theatre at the National until 19 January. For further information and tickets, click here.