Antony and Cleopatra at the Olivier Theatre: ‘Okonedo’s Cleopatra is the perfect study of the character’
Anthony Walker-Cook reviews his favourite Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra, which is now being performed at the Olivier Theatre in the National. Anthony considers the difficulty of the show and why this production captures the exotic quality of the Egyptian East.
Antony and Cleopatra is, by many accounts, a hard play to produce. It is Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers played on the macrocosmic world stage, with multiple scene changes between Rome and Egypt, a female queen oscillating between lover and politician, and a former politician now simply a blinded lover. Simon Godwin’s new production of the play in the National’s Olivier Theatre achieves all of these qualities and is as transient as the queen herself with polish and finesse. Under Godwin’s direction, the entire cast offer new perspectives on their characters, but it is Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra who shines through, and it is little wonder Antony (Ralph Fiennes), ‘The triple pillar of the world’, has become ‘transform’d / Into a strumpet’s fool’.
Though classified as one of Shakespeare’s ‘Roman’ plays, half the piece is spent in the East in the queen’s court. Hildegard Bechtler’s set design of both sides of the world is perfect. In the East, rich golds and an azure swimming pool form a perfect temple to and for the Dionystic lifestyle. Warm golden lights are cast across the stage whilst characters enter through trellised doors, and the ever faithful Iras (Georgia Landers) and Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) wait upon their queen. Octavius’s Rome, by contrast, is Augustan in more than one sense of the word. Early on, in Octavius’ (Tunji Kasim) war room, masks line the walls, a slight hint towards the emperor’s later Forum, which kept trinkets of the cultures conquered during the formation of the Roman empire. Importantly, these masks, long and wide in the face, capture the apparent incivility of these other cultures. There’s little doubt Egypt will too be soon put on display.
Of the three difficulties outlined above, it is a challenge to suggest which is the most pressing when adapting Antony and Cleopatra. Yet, to focus on Cleopatra herself, Okonedo’s portrayal is the perfect study of the character. She is not madly in love, nor is she overly calculating, but Okonedo’s thoughtless movements between fawning lover and manipulative femina furens, from enraged queen to loyal leader, demonstrate the subtlety of the role. As the play goes on, and the contrasts between Rome and Egypt become increasingly apparent, it is a testament to Okonedo’s acting and the design that we feel ourselves constantly drawn to the East. Whether it be the queen’s humour or sensual appeal, these are, as Antony observes, ‘strong Egyptian fetters’ indeed.
Certainly, the success of this production is that Godwin allows and has clearly encouraged the brief interruptions of comedy throughout the show, but they never allow the tone to shift towards farce. When Antony fails to kill himself, only the observation ‘not dead yet’ allows a glimpse of comedy before audiences are reminded that they are seeing the complete downfall of a successful general. Cleopatra’s harsh treatment of the Messenger (Fisayo Akinade) is soggily laughable until she holds his head under water. More importantly, her observation about Antony’s weight as she lifts him onto her altar offers little deflation to the dramatic moment. This is a production confidently sure of both itself and Shakespeare’s own methods of heightening tension, these brief glimpses of comedy used to juxtapose the tragedy unfurling on stage with deeply personal consequences.
Fiennes is also a fine Antony. The hallmarks of a fallen general are present, and a largely intoxicated attitude towards Cleopatra are demonstrated in his drunken antics aboard Pompey’s ship. If the strict iambic pentameter is not always followed across this production, characters give a wonderful new emphasis on certain words, and Fiennes’ Antony speaks with a dislocation that implies not only a former rhetorician but also now a man in love. Strong and confident, Obianyo’s Charmian is like a younger Cleopatra, whilst Kasim’s mature Octavius offers few of the young ruler’s vulnerabilities. As Agrippa, Katy Stephens offers a tentatively assured performance, implying almost that the marriage between Octavia and Antony was a proposition she knew would fail, and thus provide an opportunity to remove the fallen Roman from the political field. Sargon Yelda’s Pompey had an affable, boyish charm akin to Hugh Laurie in Blackadder, whilst as the stoic Enobarbus Tim McMullan’s sullen demeanour offers the personal account of Antony’s fall.
If it seems laboured to offer the interpretations of so many characters, then I can only stress that this production allowed me to see my favourite Shakespearean play in a different light. It has not been long since Macbeth was on the Olivier’s stage. Another of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Rufus Norris’s Macbeth struggled to fill the large space with small scenes between few characters. Structurally, Antony and Cleopatra is similar to Macbeth: both depict warring states, focus on a manipulative queen and fallen king, and swiftly move across geographical regions. Yet this production succeeds where Macbeth failed: through the superb cast, Antony and Cleopatra fills the stage to show both the history of the formation of the Roman emperor and the microcosmic obsession of two lovers. Antony states, ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying’ as he is brought to Cleopatra’s monument. Certainly, these figures are worthy of such lascivious claims, settings and gratitudes, and we are left in little doubt as to how one of the ‘pillar[s] of the world’ came crashing down, with Cleopatra’s triumphant image rising from the dust and rubble.
Antony and Cleopatra is at the Olivier Theatre in rep until the 19thJanuary. On the 6th of December, the show will be broadcast to cinemas through the National Theatre Live scheme.
Feature photograph: Johan Persson