Tag Archives: Sophie Okonedo

“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

“The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

This first London revival of Edward Albee’s 2002 play, with Ian Rickson directing a stellar cast, reveals a piece that is riveting and risqué. A superb companion to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing around the corner, it’s also a marital drama with high stakes. Our hero is having an affair… with a goat.

There’s a lot of shock value, cleverly handled. Albee plays with taboos in a fashion that would make younger writers from the ‘In Yer Face’ school proud. The nervous laughter of the audience would be gratifying to him. The language is colourful and its articulate characters – caught in a nightmarish situation – explore all manner of repercussions to the affair.

The cast are superb. Jason Hughes and Archie Madekwe stand as fully formed characters, best friend and son to Martin and Stevie Gray, the couple whose perfect lives didn’t contain a plan about what would happen in the face of zoophilia. It’s a bizarre twist – that’s the point – Albee even describes it as “ludicrous”.

Damian Lewis takes the part of Martin: great as the tortured victim of his obsession and even better when it comes to trying to defend his actions. Sophie Okonedo plays his unfortunate wife, giving a magnetic performance of subtle comic skill. Together they create a believably perfect marriage – think how difficult that is – that roots the show in a painful reality. And the life we see falling apart needs to be convincing: it is important Martin’s obsession is a bolt from the blue.

When the truth is revealed, the objets in the couple’s stylish apartment suffer during an amusingly respectful fighting match (credit to designer Rae Smith here, but also a busy stage management replacing all those broken pots). Martin the “semanticist” tries to pin down what’s going on – to describe facts and feelings. His odd forgetfulness and obsession with grammar are not just for laughs, and Lewis makes them edgy; showing the “pit” of chaos that’s arisen from a chance encounter in a farmyard! With admirable gusto, Rickson orchestrates a swirling mix of trauma, hilarity and shock – making this an awesome experience.

Until 24 June 2017


Photo by Johan Persson