Review: National Theatre Live: Antony & Cleopatra

Liza Dezfouli

This ravishing but over-long production, directed by Simon Godwin, enthralls.
Review: National Theatre Live: Antony & Cleopatra

Ralph Fiennes as Antony, Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra in National Theatre Live's Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Photo by Johan Persson.

National Theatre Live brings us Antony & Cleopatra, directed by Simon Godwin. Ralph Fiennes plays the great military general Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire. We meet him in Egypt, living with Queen Cleopatra, played by Sophie Okonedo, the two enjoying a life of expensive sensual indulgence. It’s worth reminding yourself of the story before you see Antony & Cleopatra, trying to understand the play’s plot machinations takes away from the utter pleasure of production values, design, and of course, performances. The play opens with the Empire threatened by the rogue Pompey, then Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia dies, thus he feels duty bound to return to Rome. Once there, to cement an alliance with Caesar (Tunji Kasim), Antony marries Caesar’s sister, Octavia (Hannah Morrish). After negotiating a truce with Pompey, Caesar’s treachery forces Antony’s hand, Antony returns to Egypt and ill-advisedly decides to confront Caesar in a naval battle.

Antony and the Queen of Egypt are ageing, and the adolescent aspect of their mutual obsession sits uneasily with their respective positions. Mark Antony and Cleopatra play politics with each other; they're both used to exercising power and  want to explore how much they have over each other. Unlike Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, we don’t witness actual acts of violence on stage until Act III; the heightened drama is in each lead’s struggle with the power dynamics in their relationship. Cleopatra is capricious, fiery, sensual and vulnerable, at times turning into performance her grand passion for Antony but always driven by it.

Fiennes and Okonedo together practically burn each other up, it’s almost a relief to see them in the scenes without each other. Tim McMullan steals moments as a debauched cocaine sniffing Enobarbus, hilariously and often poignantly eloquent. Some of Shakespeare’s most enduring lines are his, most famously his description of Cleopatra in her barge sailing up the Nile to meet Mark Antony. He’s contrasted with Fisayo Akinade as Antony's loyal side-kick Eros, an affecting portrayal. I didn’t buy Tunji Kasim’s Caesar. He looks too sweetly boyish, for a start, and if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were listening to the voice of comedic actor Chris O’Dowd; they have the same accent. It’s distracting.

Georgia Landers as Iras, Ralph Fiennes as Antony, Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra, Gloria Obianyo as Charmian in National Theatre Live's Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Photo by Johan Persson.

The costumes are couture at its finest, Cleopatra’s wardrobe is inspired by celebrity glamour, referencing singer/actor Beyoncé. The set at times nearly dominates the production – Egypt features blue tiled pools while Rome is depicted with a minimalist design and a nod to sophisticated military technology.

Director Godwin has this version opening with the last scene first, then proceeds in flashback and we get the last scene again where it belongs – an indulgence in a production which runs for three hours forty minutes (including interval). Despite the mesmerizing leads and visual delights, this version of Antony & Cleopatra is an endurance marathon. A real snake features in the final scene but the need to get it off stage safely breaks the story and undermines the dramatic impact. All this aside, there’s rapture to be had with two great lead actors giving all they have.

Rating:  4 stars ★★★★
Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Godwin
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer: Evie Gurney 
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
The National Theatre 

In selected cinemas from 2 February 2019 for a strictly limited time
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli has been reviewing film, live performance, books and occasionally music for over a decade. She blogs about film under her own name and writes another, somewhat less-measured one called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She creates work for the stage herself every now and then and can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: www.lizadezfouli.com.