For one of The Bard’s greatest tragedies, the National Theatre’s latest production of Antony and Cleopatra is remarkably funny. And not just the odd scoff under your breath but slick, laugh-out-loud kind of humour. Which, to be quite honest, is rather a relief after bedding down for a three-and-a-half-hour show.
Starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, you walk into the Olivier Theatre knowing there’s a good chance of witnessing something special, maybe even something to brag about at your next dinner party. And thus the epic length of this epic tale is but a trifling detail that means you have to note the earlier start time of 7pm – you’re never going to begrudge it – but director Simon Godwin has so dexterously imbued a sense of lightness into this famous story that what you behold is something that glitters (and I don’t just mean Cleopatra’s silky golden dresses). Of course, with light there must also be shadow, and this tragedy therefore boasts all of its due pathos at the same time. Plus a delightful dose of glamour.
We meet the Oscar-nominated Fiennes’ Antony languishing quite happily in the arms of his queen, like James Bond gone off grid after a particularly grueling mission: he’s escaped to the sun, where he saunters around in linen culottes (yes, really), an unbuttoned tropical shirt revealing a tanned torso and strings of beads around his neck. Barefoot and beer in hand, he is far removed from the great soldier he is known as, a lovesick schoolboy entirely mollified by lust. Fiennes wears this foolish grin well, and it is only when the situation truly demands it that we see him transform into battle mode. There is an odd sort of stiff hobble that presumably points to Antony’s age and war wounds, but it is the shifts from dapper negotiator to combatant to desperate leader to betrayed lover that really give us the full sense of this phenomenal warrior so patently slipping past his prime.
It mingles like yin into yang (or perhaps vice versa) with Okonedo’s effervescent Cleopatra, who fizzes with youthful caprice. Her gleefulness is infectious, which makes it so much more intimidating when her mood turns sour, and her physical presence is commanding yet lithe. She provides a wealth of comic value, from acerbic retorts to Antony to the frenzied interrogation of a poor messenger, whose news is so unsatisfactory that she ends up dunking him in her stylish azure pool. It is this shared maniacal streak between her and Antony that make them such a captivating (though alarming) pair, but her deterioration come the inevitable is the most affecting, her tear-stricken face and world-wearily hunched frame radiating grief through the auditorium.
Tim McMullan provides strong support and bonhomie as Enobarbus, and Fisayo Akinade displays both poignancy and impressive stunt skills as Antony’s other sidekick, Eros (he who gets dunked). As Caesar, the assured Tunji Kasim is coolly menacing which may, in part, be down to his costumes, shrewdly designed by Evie Gurney, who marks the generational divide between him (dark suits, roll-necks and the occasional cravat, with a gleaming watch and Gucci-esqu loafers worn without socks) and Antony as the Italian gentleman in his double-breasted pale grey wool suit. Caesar is the reserved, teetotal millennial to the older Antony, who drinks and sings and staggers about pre-battle, and has been successfully enticed by the warm gold hues of the Egyptian vistas as opposed to the harsher Roman style, which is all blues and quietly beeping military operation rooms. Hildegard Bechtler’s astonishing set design could warrant its own analysis such is the structural as well as artistic flair, but that might have to wait.
In the meantime, just know that this is as authentic a telling of Shakespeare’s fated pair as you are likely to find (even down to the real, live snake that sees Cleopatra off) but done with such finesse and comedic nuance as to grip you even harder. If you haven’t managed to nab a ticket, then mark the 6th December in your diary when there will be a live relay from the theatre in cinemas across the country. It is well worth catching and, promise, the hours will fly by.
At the Olivier Theatre, Lambeth, London SE1 9PX until 19th January 2019. Running time approx 3 hours 30 minutes including an interval. National Theatre Live broadcast in cinemas Thursday 6th December. For more information please visit the website.