Adapted from the works of William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
As part of their continuing ‘At Home’ series, providing theatre to the masses, The National Theatre serves disturbing illusions of love and war, set against the surging dynasty of Octavian Caesar. This surface of grand ideas, complex yet gorgeous lyrical language conceals a lacerating political drama where the tones of integrity, loyalty and devotion fall at the corruptive hands of obsession. An ancient love story, which declines to limit itself to a singular genre, Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra (loosely) accounts the relationship between the Ruler of Plotemic Egypt and occupant of Mark Anthony’s thoughts. Chartering their relationship from infatuation, dogmatic declarations and eventually, succumbing to fixation.
The epitome of a conqueror, demonstrating equal control of spoken word and physicality in his performance, Ralph Fiennes is every bit the Anthony one would expect. At first bold, seemingly uncomfortable in his baggy, Oriental trousers, is thriving for a return to action, a purpose. His bolstering against the continuation of Caesar’s inevitable rise oozes machismo in the manner in which Fiennes lifts, grapples, and grinds against the men, dominating them. Yet, behind this bravado, Fiennes measure of the performance is not in the brash piss-taker, but a distraught man who faces desolation at the hands of a younger foe. Though initially capturing the achievements of a man of war, and intimately twisted chemistry with Okonedo, it is this fall into the abyss where Fiennes ensnares us. What is Anthony though, without a resolute, commendable force to command his affections? What is Anthony without Cleopatra?
Poignant, playful, and persuasive, Sophie Okonedo is the visceral power behind the production. Mercurial, almost flippant in eruptions of sensation, Okonedo’s Cleopatra is less a temptress than a tigress, a calculating beast which belays an underestimated strength. She is, despite what others possibly interpret, not solely a figurehead of femininity but the deconstruction of gender, the smashing of normality which is thrust upon her in Shakespeare’s language. Her embodiment of Egypt, to be as ‘abundant, leaky and changeable as the Nile’ may characterise the sentiment of the country as the feminine, and Rome as the masculine, but Okonedo carries a unique approach which transcends the obvious. Both cities conduct themselves like the other, and Godwin’s manipulation of pretence allows for Okonedo to run with the part. She is a breathing paradox; petulant yet controlled, arrogant but all the while self-conscious.
As the wistful toying of words plays out across Alexandria, Egypt, the delivery of severity contrasts Rome. Notably, the productions key line deliveries are not solely on the parts of Fiennes or Okonedo, but in the supporting cast, chiefly from Tim McMullan playing Enobarbus, Anthony’s loyalist confidant. McMullan is controlled, jesting on occasion, bouncing to-and-fro off of Fiennes in perfect pacing where Godwin’s direction marries surreptitiously with Shakespeare’s language. Anthony & Cleopatra is by far at its most successful when Fiennes or Okonedo have the toys of supporting characters to play with, to manipulate. Allowing for dynamics in culture, as the men of Rome conduct themselves characteristically different to Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers (Charmian & Iras) who’s reverence for their ruler carry in a softer, but by no means less significant voice than the sycophants of Anthony or Caesar.
Godwin maintains this allegory, traditional in adaptations to decipher the differences between Rome and Egypt, allowing for subtle (or blunt) commentary. It’s seen in the performances, the costuming, but more often than not, and no different here, the staging and set design illustrate the differences in the clean, opulent Egypt against the streaming, technology-infused war-rooms of Rome. Catapulting the modernist political drama aesthetic, Hildegard Bechtler captures the intensity, and arguable futility, of men playing at war. The semi-circular staging juts into the audience allows for intimacy, and though the revolving stage extends the already steep running time, the ingenuity behind the construct is unmistakable. Particularly when coupled with Christopher Shutt’s sound design as the ‘submarine’ emerges from the depths of the stage.
This length takes a substantial toll on the production’s rhythm, which is paramount to forgiving Shakespeare’s dashed conclusion. There are ample nap opportunities for the weary, as the difficulty in translating forty-two scenes into a single production. It impedes, where regardless of potency of poetic language, audience’s will be drawn away from the moment, particularly with supporting cast who simply cannot convey the delivery required. Shakespeare’s work is notorious for words ring hollow when spoken without conviction. Recitations begin to develop where performers are merely going through the motions, as opposed to breathing the language, tying it into the character.
Anthony & Cleopatra is a tragedy. It is also notable for its comedy, its loose historical context, its romance and political commentary. It is by no means a single genre, and by no means speaking with one voice. Godwin’s production, his intention, to demonstrate the corrosive capabilities of obsession is where The National Theatre’s recent performance excels, lead by two of the country’s prominent theatrical performers. It may feel like a slog in parts, but similar to Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra, this is theatre of “infinite variety”, a lesson we must not neglect in these times.
Anthony & Cleopatra is available to stream from Youtube until May 14th at 7:00pm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWc6_aCTqI0
Information, and vitallly donations, can be provided from The National Theatre website: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-antony-and-cleopatra
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