by Carol Rocamora
If you like your Shakespeare fast and furious, then jump on-line and watch the Royal National Theatre’s hot 2019 production of Antony and Cleopatra while it’s still streaming (and steaming).
Indeed, “hot” describes the combined energy of Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the title roles. Many of the greats have played this power couple in compelling combinations—Laurence Olivier/Vivian Leigh (West End and Broadway, 1951); Michael Gambon/ Helen Mirren (RSC, 1982); Anthony Hopkins/Judi Dench (Royal National Theatre, 1987); and Patrick Stewart/Harriet Walter (RSC, 2006). The chemistry of the Richard Burton/ Elizabeth Taylor combo in the 1963 film version is legendary—and lasting, for all to see.
But the heat generated by Fiennes and Okonedo is special. Fiennes is a charismatic classical stage actor—witness his memorable performances in the title roles of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Chekhov’s Ivanov, and Ibsen’s The Master Builder. He’s also skilled in darkly comedic portrayals, such as the mob boss in Martin McDonagh’s film, In Bruges. Every performance is unique, daring, intense, and unforgettable. Here, in Simon Godwin’s massive production, Fiennes’s Antony is a man who is supremely confident in his status—powerful, virile, arrogant, entitled, over-confident, and self-indulgent (in drinking and carousing). Above all, he’s a man in love—obsessed into oblivion by the exotic Egyptian Queen. That obsession renders him distracted, reckless and careless to a degree that results in his tragic demise.
Sophie Okonedo, also a star in British theater and film, is Fiennes’s match in charisma. Her Cleopatra is equally imperious—as well as willful, demanding, temperamental, jealous, and utterly irresistible. She gives a larger-than-life performance of volcanic intensity, as she stalks the stage, flails around on the floor, abuses a messenger, and so on. She’s unpredictable and explosive—turning from kittenish to tiger-like in an instant. She’s also very entertaining—that is, when it pleases her. Hers is a queen-sized performance.
Together, Fiennes and Okonedo match the Burton/Taylor duo in energy, passion, and sexual heat. As the saying goes, they chew up the scenery with relish. The cavernous Olivier Theatre can handle their super-sized performances, but in truth, the story itself demands it. In ancient Rome, Mark Antony has forsaken his place in the ruling triumvirate to carouse with Cleopatra in Egypt. After he learns of his wife’s death, Antony solidifies his alliance with Caesar by marrying Caesar’s sister Octavia (circa 40 BC), while still remaining with his Egyptian temptress. Once that political alliance goes wrong, Antony ends up at war with Caesar, making some reckless strategic decisions (mostly to please Cleopatra) that lead to his defeat and ultimate death.
Helming this mega-production is an enormous directorial undertaking, and Simon Godwin more than rises to the occasion—he triumphs. He and designer Hildegard Bechtler have made splendid use of the huge Olivier space, featuring a turnstile stage with multiple locales including Cleopatra’s palace, Caesar’s Roman war room, battle scenes on land and sea (with smashing projections by Luke Halls and sound effects by Christopher Shutt). It’s a spectacle of British theater at its best.
Fiennes and Okonedo are blessed with a terrific supportive cast, featuring the always excellent Tim McMullan as Enobarbus (Antony’s aide), a lovely Hannah Morrish as Octavia, and a dashing Tunji Kasim as Caesar.
The three-hour-long production flies by until its much- anticipated melodramatic ending. After Antony kills himself (thinking that his Egyptian Queen has died), Cleopatra stages her own death by dying (sensationally) from an asp-bite rather than be captured by Caesar. (It’s a live snake, of course.) “Now from head to foot I am marvel constant,” she declares. So it can be said of Fiennes’s Antony and Godwin’s spectacular production.
Antony and Cleopatra. Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Simon Godwin. A Royal National Theatre production, now streaming on NT Live YouTube from May 7-14. For direct link to video go to: https://bit.ly/2yoaVOz and for the National Theatre go to: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
Photos: Johan Persson/National Theatre