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FringeReview UK 2018

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

Simon Godwin directs. Hildegard Bechtler’s magisterial Olivier revolve fits a conceptual massiveness. Fight Director Kev McCurdy thews the revolve in battle scenes. Tim Lutkin’s lighting divides bright Rome, tenebrous Alexandria, smoky Actium, where Christopher Shutt’s sound outfaces Michael Bruce’s thrummy music, which fines down to a singe guitar or orates storm-like in Magnus Mehta’s direction. Luke Halls’ video-projecting a techno-surf Rome. Rome’s formal cut rubs against Egyptian gilt flow in Evie Gurney’s costumes.


It’s only when you see the wreckage of Shakespeare’s contemporaries tackling Antony and Cleopatra or Cleopatra with Caesar, that you grasp what a miracle of compression his own work is, and how far ahead. Especially in this (currently) three hours and twenty-three minute traversal which Simon Godwin refuses to hurry, though does cut – the eunuch Alexas vanishes, and some of the worm badinage. Hildegard Bechtler’s magisterial Olivier revolve also nudges to a measured pace though scene-dissolves are fleet. Deliberation and clarity forces you to clock each of the forty-two scenes.


Even so gifted and underrated a playwright as Massinger in The False One seen at a Globe reading in 2017 crumbles scenes, struggling to fillet North’s Plutarch as a viable playtext. And only Dryden in his Restoration 1678 All For Love even partly escaped the misogyny. Shakespeare’s bound by contemporary pressure to follow Plutarch; this does lead to the fifth act’s episodic amplitude: Charmian’s last speech was expected. But he makes a triumph of Enobarbasing Plutarch in the most famous speech of all. It’s a work with a bit too much source material – which unfortunately half the original audience knew.


Shakespeare’s still ahead. Taking Antony and Cleopatra as his fifth great tragedy as it often is (by e.g. Harold Bloom) then it’s clear that two of those five chief protagonists (six with Antony) are of African origin, or at least BAME. Josette Simon – at the RSC last year – and now Sophie Okonedo are still the first to take up this inheritance.


Bechtler’s revolve divides: a half-circle, blank-walled Roman modernity, reverses to a green malachite ornate Egyptian courtyard. Foregrounded are ornamental ponds blue-flecked with walkways and wettings delivered. It seems simple.


But not only does the Roman side dissolve into hotel bedrooms further light-dividing off from a modern hub, Luke Halls’ video-projecting a techno-surf Rome. From the drum we get the obverse and face grey interiors of a modern battle-cruiser with stage-floor hatches emerging foregrounded for Pompey’s feast; with beer crates. It’s imposing, as are marmoreal modern uniforms and Desert Storm garb, Rome’s formal cut against Egyptian gilt flow in Evie Gurney’s costumes.


There’s a swift use of walls punched through with open doors moved about by all as the revolve thrillingly depicts battle scenes later – thewed balletically by Fight Director Kev McCurdy. Tim Lutkin’s lighting divides bright Rome, tenebrous Alexandria, smoky Actium – where Christopher Shutt’s sound outfaces Michael Bruce’s thrummy music, which fines down to a single guitar orates storm-like or spangles in Hercules’ abandoning Antony, in Magnus Mehta’s direction.


We start at the end and swirl back to it, Bechtler’s sandstone monument design showing dead Cleopatra, spoken over by Caesar, suddenly vivified as Antony kneels by her and we’re properly started.


That is though in stately fashion. Instead of ‘most noble queen’ parries Ralph Fiennes allows a beat before essaying another, snapped off by a commanding, regally capricious Okonedo. Here’s an Antony not ready to transform into a strumpet’s fool anytime, ever. And Fiennes gives the most impressive Antony of recent times. His warmth glows like filaments slowly heated as he rises to himself: his words and movements sinewed like an old soldier, burring a deep baritone for lusty wassails. There’s a snap as a Roman thought strikes him, nothing violent or torn. Even his furious rounding on Cleopatra is studded with restraint.


Antony here possesses Antony, save in a few drunken swirls at Pompey’s feat where in a climactic Alpha-male jape he strikes Caesar, abruptly reversing their rapprochement. The other lies in loosening up that terminal phase when Enobarbus notes he’s ‘frighted out of fear’ as Antony’s whole body cavorts in alcoholic bravado. And when he wants to make his last followers weep.


Here cruel contempt is vented. Thidias, Sam Woolf’s ambassador from Caesar heads for a whipping as soon as he thrusts his cap disdainfully at Enobarbus like a doorman. Bloody bare-backed Thidias is graphically slewed downstage.


Okonedo’s given less to be cruel about, giving Fisayo Akinade’s quietly devotional (to Antony) Eros a wetting, flinging him about the pool. Here too there’s less cavorting: when Cleopatra starts off on ‘or is he on his horse?’ she’s reclining on a chaise, sexual reverie contained, still less imitated by Charmian and Iras as is sometimes the case. Certainly Okonedo’s happiest when recalling Antony as speeches direct, but she’s warm, even hot with him in person too. You believe in them, despite circling ceremonial.


Okonedo like Antony is given mostly entire. The miracle is neither diminish in the final scenes’ slow-down. Okonedo shows little fright in her flight scenes, quick dispatch rather than panic when she fears wrath after the triple-turned whore speech. She must come into her own after Antony’s death. The stillness given to Act V’s invigorated by the way Okonedo disposes of everything in ‘the high Roman fashion’. Gloria Obianayo’s Charmian possesses a regality of her own, a quiet way of dealing with Cleopatra. Georgia Landers’ Iras is petulant when given short shrift in the fortune-telling stakes: ‘are alike’ won’t cut it. But she possesses that inward devotion sparked out with a kiss.


Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus commands too, his oaken-voiced delivery far more ADC than ancient to any general. His tragedy’s vocal too: Antony silences his plain-speaking in Rome, but he bridles at wrong-headedness in Alexandria. He’s not above a gravelly partying; his speeches measure wonder through despair. More than a considerate stone, when his lodestar loyalty finally shatters it shocks us.


Enobarbus bridges that tricky grudge of sympathy to Rome. Tunji Kasim’s Caesar is politic, prickly, still exuding that ‘boy’ zone to earn Antony’s old barb. As so often in this production his speeches locate the authority he wields elsewhere: deliberated for on-screen potential, never off the leash.


As ever his closest relationship is with sister Octavia: Hannah Morrish’s voice isn’t low. No stranger to these plays at the RSC, she’s again deliberate, clear-toned, frozen in political headlights. Bar a tiny honesty-in-a-hotel-room scene with Antony that hardly develops, she’s never allowed privacy, save in her brother’s arms and kiss, shadowed in a scene dissolve.


Katy Stephens makes of Agrippa a fixer-politician of alacrity whose warm wishes for Antony’s rapprochement chill as her project Octavia’s abandoned. And fighting off an unlooked-for kiss from old friend Enobarbus. That proves ominous. Nicholas Le Prevost often plays slightly menacing authority figures with a streak of adamantine. As Lepidus he’s a revelation as one who’s lost this, both as an anxious peacemaker and in drink.


Sargon Yelda’s Pompey is a nicely observed middleman too, between luxury and austerity losing world and life to a nice sense of honour as Gerald Gyimah’s buccaneering Menas offers it to him. Nick Sampson makes ruffled dignity of the schoolmaster Euphronius’ ambassadorial role from Antony.


Small parts are taken with clarity and pauses to register, even final ones like Ben Wiggins’ fresh-faced Proculeius whose counsel Antony mistakenly commends to Cleopatra. It falls to Morrish in a nice touch to act as here-unnamed Dolabella to utter ‘Gentle Madam, no’ to the queen’s last Antonyism, urging Cleopatra to act on her advice. Hiba Elchikhe’s Soothsayer impresses despite cut Welshisms.


At such length Godwin’s concentrated much in his titular characters, excising some flirty Alexandrian badinage and tiny cuts so the work breathes elsewhere. Spectacle can slow down but it builds too this axial point of history when all’s on the hazard. Ultimately it’s Fiennes’ refusal to let his own Tiber self melt and Okonedo’s dignity of state that suggests Godwin sacrifices only a scruple of skittishness to stone. It’s supremely worth it to see these characters weighing equal in their own balance, perhaps for the first time.