Reviewed by James Karas
In the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, we see Cleopatra lying still on the floor as Philo, one of Antony’s followers, speaks the first lines of the play. Antony, the great general who resembled the god of war Mars has become a strumpet’s fool, he tells Antony’s friend Demetrius. Antony enters and gives the prostrate Cleopatra a kiss and she awakens as if from the dead. The two are supposed to enter with a flourish and a train of followers but director Simon Godwin had a different and brilliant idea for the commencement of the play.
The Queen of Egypt and one of Caesar’s three successors, express their boundless love for each other. Within a few lines in the opening scene Shakespeare has joined the two forces that make up Antony and Cleopatra – the political fate of the Roman world and the great love story of the two protagonists.
Ralph Fiennes and Sophia Okonedo. Photo: Johan Persson
Ralph Fiennes takes the role of the besotted Antony who must navigate between political necessity and passion. He manages to make a truce with his rival Octavius Caesar (Tunji Kasim), including marrying his sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) but soon capitulates to his dotage and returns to Egypt.
Fiennes gives a bravura performance taking Antony from the heroic general to the broken down man and lover who is humiliated, turns to drink and eventually commits suicide. Even in his heyday as a lover Antony is treated with derision and contempt by the Romans but he maintains his bravado in the first half of the play. Fiennes is powerful, passionate, arrogant and pathetic in turn as his character’s life cycle takes its course.
Near the end of his life Antony recalls Dido and Aeneas, the great lovers of the distant past. Aeneas loved Dido as much as Antony loved Cleopatra but he left the grieving Queen behind in Carthage because he was to higher duty bound, the founding of Rome. A marvelous juxtaposition in a play that displays a richness of language and references.
Sophie Okonedo is outstanding as Cleopatra. This Queen is feline, sexually magnetic, manipulative, blindly in love and a woman to be reckoned with under all circumstances. She maintains her majesty, her ardour, her nobility and her arrogance almost intact to the bitter end unlike Antony who becomes a pathetic man. In her strength of character Okonedo’s Cleopatra remains what Antony was in his prime.
Tunji Kasim as Caesar is conniving, mendacious and pretty slimy. His sister Octavia as played by Morrish is attractive, sympathetic and decent in a world where decency is a rare commodity.
Sophia Okonedo (lying down) and cast. Photo: Johan Persson
Tim McMullen as Antony’s faithful follower Enobarbus is a proper soldier, competent and faithful, until he breaks down and joins the enemy He recovers moral stature by realizing his treachery and ending his own life.
Director Simon Godwin’s modern dress production was staged at London’s National Theatre and is being broadcast to movie houses. The opulence of Cleopatra’s palace is suggested by a swimming pool and the rest of the play with the numerous scene changes using large panels with door openings. The large revolving stage of the Olivier Theatre is ideal for quick scene changes. With more than two hundred entrances by the large number of characters the use of numerous door entrances is a must and Set Designer Hildegard Bachtler has provided them.
A highly effective production. But a word to the squeamish: the production uses a real snake for Cleopatra’s end-of-life sequence.