Shakespeare’s plays tend to be reviewed on the strength of the production rather than the quality of the text, which is taken as a given. But the problems with this otherwise brilliant National Theatre show are all of the bard’s making.
There’s a reason, after all, why Antony and Cleopatra isn’t performed very often, this being only its third outing at the National (previous productions starred Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, and Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren). Its global themes don’t resonate with modern politics in the eerily prescient way Shakespeare’s other histories do, and it’s bogged down by a strange, plodding structure that culminates with Antony being killed off far too soon, leaving Cleopatra to carry a tortuously long final act.
Taking up the mantle this time are Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, who continue this play’s legacy of exceptional casting. Fiennes is deliciously jaded as the grizzled old general, far more comfortable fighting wars and getting pissed than he is striking deals with the body politic of the abstemious young Caesar (Octavius, the great nephew of Julius, for followers of the extended Shakespearian Theatrical Universe). It’s no wonder he falls for Okonedo’s sybaritic Egyptian Cleopatra, who spends half the play (the better half) with champagne bottle in hand, slurring spiky, love-lorn demands at her exasperated handmaidens.
The cursed romance plays out against a lavish set – a North African palace with a natty water feature morphs into a marble-hewn Roman government building, then a smouldering war-zone, then a lonely little cube upon which Cleopatra breathes her last. Costumes are modern, fun and a tad inconsistent, with Fiennes introduced in an open Hawaiian shirt and billowing linen trousers, while Caesar – a coiled performance by Tunji Kasim – sports Italian loafers and a cravat.
Director Simon Godwin declines to chop much of the text, instead breaking up the three and a half hours with a series of crowd pleasing set pieces – a submarine rising from the rotating stage; an explosive shootout through a series of moving archways; a song and dance number that turns into a fully fledged brawl, complete with topless sailors; a show-stopping suicide scene whose details I won’t spoil. He also opts for humour over drama whenever possible – Cleopatra is largely a figure of fun, a self-obsessed drunk hurtling ignobly into middle age. Even Antony’s suicide is played for laughs, with his feeble, nicely timed “Not dead…” raising a deserved chuckle.
There’s so much to love in this production, but that fifth act proves you really can have too much of a good thing.