Review – Antony & Cleopatra, National Theatre

Friday 21 September 2018

We will assume you know enough about the story of Mr Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (or Antony ampersand Cleopatra as the National is naming it) that you will not be offended by the spoliers that appear here. After all it’s hardly Bodyguard don’t you know.

So what’s it about?

It’s about 3 hours 30 minutes. Yes, we’ve used this gag before but we’re assuming that our demographic are of an age (or drink so much) that they won’t remember such things.

You were at the first preview, do you think it’ll get shorter?

Not much. It starts at 7pm, our “curtain” came down at 10.40pm but it did start a few minutes late and director Simon Godwin made a jaunty little speech before it began to warn us that this was to be the first time they’d tried to run it through in its entirety so we should expect things to go wrong. Phil was beside himself with excitement at the prospect.

Did things go wrong?

Disappointingly not much. Talk about mismanaging our expectations. And this is not a simple production. The Olivier’s all-singing all-dancing drum revolve is given a thorough workout, twirling, dropping and raising Hildegard Bechtler‘s scenery throughout. This includes a large, tiled paddling pool and a ship (or possibly submarine) that surely owes its inspiration to the artist Richard Serra.

The best gaffe of the night was during Antony’s suicide. Ralph Fiennes struggled to locate and burst his blood bag quickly enough. This elicited giggles among the more frivolous in the audience. Phil considered it impolite not to join in, so did.

What about Cleopatra’s asp?

Amazing. There is a real snake. It appears to have an understudy (Amey of AmeyZoo is credited for snakes). An orange black and white thing presumably chosen to look like a discombobulating coral snake. But what was it? A milk snake, a scarlet snake or a Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake? Phil suffers from ophidiophobia so there is only so much googling he’s prepared to do for you. And since he was sitting a mere 5 rows back a not inconsiderable degree of tension was added as he watched it wriggling and baring its forked tongue. Big hat-doffing to Sophie Okonedo (Cleopatra) and Gloria Obianyo (her handmaiden Charmian) whose courageous snake wrangling was a thing of wonder. Look out for the way Obianyo returns it to the basket and carefully ties the bag it is placed in. Despite his fear Phil was hoping for a Snakes on a Plane moment and that it might escape into the auditorium and create a theatrical first.

Have you seen the play before?

Twice. Both in the Olivier. The rather good Judi Dench / Anthony Hopkins version and the dreadful Helen Mirren / Alan Rickman one. Three out of four of those stars went on to win Academy Awards which may be good news for Fiennnes and Okonedo. They both have Oscar nominations under their belts already.

But are these two any good?

Okonedo is not the easiest of performers to warm to. This makes her well-suited to playing Cleopatra, a woman prone to lolling grumpily around by her water feature. A demeanour presumably exacerbated by her ornamental pond not being filled with asses’ milk. She’s definitely in charge of Act 1 and, ahem, milks her hissy fits for laughs most ably.

Fiennes seemed much less Rising Damp‘s Rigsby and more subdued than usual; hardly surprising given that he has to sing (a singing coach is credited) and the dreadful wardrobe choices that are forced upon him (not that Cleopatra’s are much better). He comes into into his own after the interval before Cleo wrestles Act 2 back from him at the end with her expert snake handling. And if you’re beginning to breathe a sigh of relief that the end is nigh when Antony croaks, think again, the last half hour is more dragged out than a Brexit negotiation.

Any other standouts?

Phil found himself strangely gripped by the crispness of Katy Stephens‘ Agrippa, cast with an eye to gender-blindness. Enobarbus is performed by the very much Whinger-sanctioned Tim McMullan so no complaints there. But it was Fisayo Akinade‘s Eros who stole attention in every scene he’s in. He has to deliver bad news to Cleopatra and it’s not so much a don’t shoot the messenger moment as don’t throw him in the paddling pool and give him a darn good soaking. Which, of course, they do. A nicely choreographed bath though. His final scene is more moving than anything produced by the leads.

How’s it staged? Contemporary or classical?

Seriously? Do you really need to ask these days? There’s a bit too much politics which makes it even more contemporary. The faking death plot line is pretty much Romeo and Juliet with togas. No togas here though, only suits. Phil found himself pining for an occasional hieroglyph.

Is the curse of the Olivier lifted?

If Okonedo had rolled herself in a carpet and Amanda Barried it up a bit it would be a resounding “yes”.




5 Responses to “Review – Antony & Cleopatra, National Theatre”

  1. Dorothy Ciulla Says:

    Really enjoyed this review. I’m hoping I’ll get to see this on my side of the pond via NTL.

  2. Sandown Says:

    “…hoping that the snake might escape into the auditorium and create a theatrical first.”

    In an evening performance of the Judi Dench version, one of the two snakes escaped into her hair, or rather her waist-length black curly wig. Fortunately, the second snake nipped in and did the business.

    As for “gender-blind casting”, as someone has recently pointed out, the casting may be gender- or colour-blind, but the audience isn’t.

    Apropos of which, the historical Cleopatra was Greek.

  3. Poonam Mittal Says:

    You are really generous giving this production 4/5. I’d be hard pushed to give it 3/5, found it rather self indulgent and at least an hour too long. Agree with you about Eros, best actor in the production.

    • MKB Says:

      I agree. Three stars from me. Some good performances but also some seriously ropey ones. No-one wowed me.

      Ivo van Hove’s heavily pruned version at the Barbican worked better.

      Finish tonight was 22:27.

  4. Richard Bennett Says:

    ‘at least an hour too long’, eh! Well what did W.S. know about play writing?

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