“Antony and Cleopatra” at the National Theatre

Lavish is the only word to describe Simon Godwin’s new production of Shakespeare’s epic historical romance. With an iconic love story, battles for an empire, a star cast and luxurious fittings, everything about the play is overblown. It makes sense for Godwin to follow Shakespeare’s lead, but so much exaggeration does end up tiring.

This is a traditional production. Despite some modern uniforms and a TV screen, the delivery is clear and there are no fancy ideas driving it. Quality is the aim and that is achieved. Hildegard Bechtler’s set makes grand use of the space, Cleopatra’s costumes by Evie Gurney could come from a catwalk and Michael Bruce’s live music, with a flavour of both the East and the military, is so good it deserves to be released.

The performances are strong, too. Sophie Okonedo takes the daunting title role in her stride. She makes a beguiling queen and is carefully understated. The constant performance Cleopatra sets up (the character is aware she always has an audience) is made to feel natural and entertaining. Ably supported by Gloria Obianyo as her servant Charmian, the queen moves in an Egyptian court dripping with sophistication. But all that confidence ends up a problem. It robs the tension from Antony’s first departure and, more importantly, deflates the play’s obsessive insistence on fate. It’s easy to believe Cleopatra’s pride would lead her to a final suicide, but isn’t she supposed to see it as an escape from fickle fortune?

There’s a similar stubbornness in the other star name, Ralph Fiennes. His “old ruffian” Antony is convincingly down to earth – he runs off for a drink as if going into battle. But when his authority “melts”, it’s hard to remember it was ever there. The “Roman thoughts” that Cleopatra fears will overcome him don’t seem to enter his mind. Nonetheless, it is fantastic to see a performer who can hold the Olivier stage as well as Fiennes. Both Fiennes and Okonedo deliver the verse with a natural fluency that is a high point of the show. This may be too safe an affair for some, but Godwin and his cast deal with a difficult play with extravagant competency.

Until 19 January 2019


Photo by Johan Persson