Often described as a “problem” play, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra sprawls untidily across 40 scenes ranging from Alexandria, Sicily and Syria to Athens and several parts of the Roman Republic. Epic in scale but domestic in nature, it fluctuates between power politics and unbridled romance as Antony (Ralph Fiennes), a noble warrior past his prime, vacillates between his soldierly duty and inebriated euphoria. It assaults the senses with its poetry and grips vice-like with the potency of the east-west story it is telling.
At the same time, its heady mix of moods and scene changes can wear you down, and it is up to the play’s director to become something of a tour guide capable of navigating and simplifying its complex, forever-changing highways and byways.
Simon Godwin is just the man for the job and, taking advantage of the National’s awesome resources, lucidly dissects this oft-told slice of ancient history by combining intimate close-ups with panoramic scope. To rely on the language of the cinema even further, he uses the Olivier’s brilliant multi-purpose revolving stage to move from one scene to another – the equivalent of a slow dissolve rather than a jump cut – thus adding about ten minutes to its already bum-numbing three and a half hours. This is also the only time I have ever seen a Shakespeare play told in flashback – another devise more common to the cinema than the theatre.
The play opens with the climactic final scene in which Caesar (Tunji Kasim) is confronted by the body of Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) lying lifeless in her tower after taking her own life rather than face the humiliations he has in store for her. Following a blackout, the narrative begins in Cleo’s exotic court (courtesy of the show’s inventive designer, Hildegard Bechtler), here dominated by an ornamental sunken pool. Later in the play, Eros (Fisayo Akinade), a hapless messenger, is unceremoniously dunked into the pool – with great comic effect – when he informs the capricious serpent of the Nile that Antony has married Caesar’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish).
Of course, the success (or failure) of any production of Antony and Cleopatra relies on the chemistry between the eponymous lovers, and Fiennes and Okonedo instantly combust. With mild echoes of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Okonedo’s myriad character traits – she’s manipulative, power-obsessed, skittish, playful, intense, vain, witty, demanding, charming when she wants to be, contrary and unreasonable when she doesn’t – merge to create a strong-willed, power-obsessed woman, no longer in the flush of youth, in thrall to a man with more weaknesses than strengths and with a mind very much her own. She is also, courtesy of Eve Gurney’s costumes, a stunning dresser. What she doesn’t possess, though, is the great Judi Dench’s capacity to raise Shakespeare’s verse above the action. Still, she’s the best Cleopatra I’ve seen since Dench played her in the same venue in 1987.
Fiennes takes longer to hit his stride, but when he does, the cumulative details he piles onto his characterisation pays dividends, as in his revelries on Pompey’s (Sargon Yelda) barge, which, in Godwin’s modern-dress staging, is designed to resemble a submarine. His emotionally fraught, all-consuming ardour for Cleopatra, contrasted with the self-hatred he inflicts on himself after the costly military debacle at Atrium, as well as the awareness of his declining physical powers, is played with total conviction. I think it was a mistake, though, to draw laughter from his botched suicide attempt. It is one of the saddest, most heart-rending moments in the play.
I’m not quite sure what is gained by the gender-bending casting of the role of Caesar’s reliable lieutenant Agrippa (Katy Stephens) other than to continue a trend that would now appear to be obligatory. What’s next? A male Lady Macbeth?
The refreshingly ethnic supporting cast includes Kasim’s unusual but effective Caesar, Tim McMullan’s conflicted Enobarbus, Akinade as put-upon Eros and Gloria Obianyo as Cleopatra’s faithful hand-maiden Charmian.
Godwin’s direction – whose literally explosive battle sequence brought to mind the good old days of the Royal Shakespeare Company when such scenes were routine – reverberates with potent east-west observations that remain relevant today. As an added, much-publicised bonus, he has also, much to the consternation of some audience members sitting in the front row, cast a live milk snake to facilitate Cleopatra’s famous suicide.