Antony and Cleopatra is a lengthy evening at the National Theatre but one which pays rich rewards, particularly in Sophie Okonedo’s majestic performance
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me”
Or Cleopatra and Antony as it turns out. Ralph Fiennes is plenty good in Simon Godwin’s modern-dress production of Antony and Cleopatra for the National Theatre, but Sophie Okonedo is sit-up, shut-up, stand-up amazing as she holds the ancient world and the entirety of the Olivier Theatre in her hand (and then wipes it clean with a look of disdain, as she wittily does after a messenger slobbers kisses all over it at one point). It is often acclaimed as one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles for women but an actor still has to do great things with it and here, Okonedo more than delivers.
In the opulent cerulean blue of Hildegard Bechtler’s design with its sunken pools and luxury, and in the magnificent array of statuesque costumes by Evie Gurney (such capes!!), her Cleopatra is a figure of immense poise. Even in her most capricious moments, there’s a knowing, performative quality to her that demonstrates just how much she’s controlling the narrative here, even when left alone by her Antony. And when together, there’s a palpable, mature connection between them – made all the more tragic by a prologue that presents a tableau of the final scene – their destinies entwining even as they’re increasingly doomed.
The Roman scenes here could easily pale in comparison but Godwin is keen to ensure they grip just as much, if differently. Bechtler’s design differentiates these worlds so expertly, icy blue lighting from Tim Lutkin shines on men in loafers with no socks and on looted cultural artefacts mounted just so – there’s no shirking the imperial overtones here. And Tunji Kasim’s is a powerful and petulant Octavius Caesar, unable to reconcile his conflicting feelings for his fellow triumvir and aided by a sharply observed Agrippa from Katy Stephens. And the Olivier’s drum revolve is used in magnificent style to provide some genuine staging surprises.
Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus is another standout performance (as is Sargon Yelda’s Pompey, and so too Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Charmian and Iras), so vivid in his own internal struggles as the play winds to the tragic conclusion that we know must come (and performed here with a live snake). My only real issues were the moments where the modern staging jarred with the text. This is a world where military information can be presented on a USB stick but where Cleopatra has to ask what Octavia looks like (as if she doesn’t have Google alerts set up on her name) and where Octavia has to profess ignorance to what her husband is up to in Athens (she’s the type who uses Facebook every day, there’s no way one of her friends wouldn’t have notified her). Small details but ones which pinged.
Live music (by Michael Bruce) adds interesting texture throughout the production, particularly through the sound of Arngeir Hauksson’s oud, and the cumulative effect is one of perfectly tragic grandeur. It’s a lengthy evening that’s for sure, but one which pays rich rewards.