Antony And Cleopatra
Until May 14, nationaltheatre.org.uk ★★★★✩
THE National is leaving every other theatre for dust with its lockdown programme — and this week it lobs some Hollywood star power into the mix, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Simon Godwin’s visually lavish production of Shakespeare’s most lyrically lavish play.
One benefit of filmed theatre productions, often recorded well into the run, is that they can show actors properly bedded into their roles. Okonedo is simply magnificent as the seductively mercurial Cleopatra — no ordinary hysterical diva but a calculating operator with a wardrobe to die for who knows with each perfectly placed hissy fit exactly what she is doing. The scene in which she deals with Fisayo Akinade’s beleaguered messenger Eros is worth viewing several times on repeat.
By contrast Fiennes’ raddled Antony is always in her shadow, forever trying to keep up. His belly swings as much as the beer bottle often to be found in his hand, his once formidable power diluted by age and drink. Their lethal chemistry is palpable, but for all Cleopatra’s fabulously theatrical displays of jealousy, Antony needs her more than she needs him. Yet the character who throws his decay into sharpest relief is Tunji Kasim’s temperate minded, slick suited and, no doubt, gym buffed Caesar.
Such detailed contrast is typical of a production that pays as much attention to its support cast as its leading players, right down to the loneliness of Hannah Morrish’s abandoned Octavia.
Godwin treats this most long-winded of Shakespeare’s plays as a geopolitical thriller as well as a love story, with the Pompey scenes unusually exciting, while the many coup de theatres include a submarine, rising like a leviathan from the deeps of the Olivier stage. The final third, with its many choppy scenes, loses momentum, a fault of the play more than of Godwin’s production.
If you’ve balked at watching Antony and Cleopatra in the past, this is the one to see.