The National Theatre’s modern, militarised take on Antony and Cleopatra – ‘the greatest of Shakespeare’s history plays’ – offers a flat production but fine performances from Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo.

By Peter Craven.

Antony and Cleopatra

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.
Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.
Credit: Johan Persson

Antony and Cleopatra is arguably the greatest exhibition within the confines of a single play of Shakespeare’s somewhat spectacular skills as a dramatic poet. Auden published it in its entirety in his multi-volume Poets of the English Language, edited with Norman Holmes Pearson, and it has a comparable virtuoso aspect in terms of the drama Shakespeare could project. This is the greatest of his Roman plays, marshalling and transfiguring the historical genius of Plutarch, and the ripest – okay, the most overripe – of his love tragedies, the coda to the sap and lilt of Romeo and Juliet.

It is the greatest of Shakespeare’s history plays – greater even than Henry IV – and the history it recapitulates and reconstructs is greater, too: Antony in his decadence, Octavius Caesar on his high and mighty rise, Cleopatra in her infinite variety. And Cleopatra is not only the greatest dramatic representation Shakespeare ever wrote of a woman, it is also the supreme tragic role for a woman encompassing all the comedy and glamour in the world.

“Peace, peace! / Dost thou not see my baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?” So says the dying queen as she holds the asp to her breast and dreams of Antony’s child, Antony’s something.

Did the boy actor who had played Cordelia – who must have been an actor of genius – say he wanted something more to get his teeth into? Well, Cleopatra says that she is “with Phoebus’s amorous pinches black, / And wrinkled deep in time”. She talks of death as “a lover’s pinch, which hurts but is desired”. And, yes, she speaks of her salad days only to emerge at the last to say, “Darkling stand / the varying shore of the world.”

Britain’s National Theatre has been doing Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps the greatest challenge the world can throw a theatre company, in a production by Simon Godwin, and its primary interest is that it has Ralph Fiennes, perhaps the best actor of his generation, as the old sworder, and Sophie Okonedo as the first black actress to play on a main stage the serpent of old Nile. He’s better in the easier and ultimately lesser role, but she has her own compelling quality in the final astonishing sequence where she climbs the pyramid alone.

It’s an odd production – at once lavish and constricted – and it can make you wonder for longish stretches why the obvious is being resisted quite so stubbornly and blindly, though this may be no impediment for someone coming at it afresh or without preconception.

It’s a pity that Joseph Mankiewicz, who gave us the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar with Brando as the young Mark Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus, went on to use his own script for Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, rather than simply using Shakespeare’s. The greatest Martha and George, with their exorbitant starriness and capacity to represent the intimacies of love as a form of trench warfare, were ideally suited to the original roles of Antony and Cleopatra. They had the looks, the magnetism, the super seediness.

And the play virtually cries out for a cinematic-level epic amplitude, which can make Godwin’s modern rejigging of it look needlessly flat and indoor and unspecific.

This production, screening in cinemas around the country, is a contemporary Antony and Cleopatra with a presidential American Caesar (Tunji Kasim) in the navy clobber of a commander-in-chief. Everyone, in fact, is either in contemporary military dress or, in the case of Okonedo, skittering around in dresses that pay homage to Beyoncé in her Lemonade period. It’s also plainish military dress – not the kind of splendour the Windsors appear in for those Westminster Abbey shindigs.

There’s also a tendency for Egypt to be all indoor swimming pools and tiles and artificial lighting. In a play that is full of the suggestion of sunlight stark and dwindling and of a glamour grand and fading this is a bit of a pity.

And – it has to be admitted – you also wonder at the extent to which cross-gendering queers the pitch a bit. We get a female Agrippa, one of Caesar’s henchmen, who barks effortfully with none of that easy assurance about degrees of command that is one of the consummate qualities of this most spacious and effortlessly worldly of Shakespeare’s plays.

There are times when you hunger for the swish of patrician purple and the gliding grace of togas and sandals and Egyptian finery. And there are even more when you want both an easy command of Shakespeare’s language and, going along with it, an inwardness with the way he knew so much about the world of power that he could present the insinuating and insolent ways in which the earth-shatterers and magnates toyed and joked round the edges of it.

It is impressive the way Pompey’s submarine rises from the depths of a midnight blue stage, though Godwin could do more with the interior spaces in which the chat and carousing and strategising take place. Too often in this lavish production the action takes place purposelessly in the vicinity of office furniture, leaving you wondering how much set designer Hildegard Bechtler has actually been encouraged to imagine the intimate interactions of this play.

And the supporting acting is variable. Nicholas Le Prevost – who was Roebuck Ramsden to Ralph Fiennes’ Jack Tanner in Man and Superman – is such a surefooted Lepidus that he makes that dodderer look positively magisterial. Tim McMullan speaks the verse bearably as Enobarbus, but he’s hardly the sort of easefully cynical henchman with a streak of reflected tragic intensity to match the great Enobarbuses, such as Patrick Stewart and Roger Allam. Nor is it remotely explicable that the Irish actress Hannah Morrish starts as Octavia, Caesar’s sister, and ends as Dolabella, the envoy to whom Cleopatra says, “You laugh when boys and women tell their dreams / Is’t not your trick?” The fact that Cleopatra can say this and then go straight into declaring “I dreamt there was an emperor Antony” is part of the dazzling magic of the play.

So how much is Fiennes a dream Antony? He is far and away the best thing in this production, speaking Shakespeare’s language at its most moody and clipped and achingly beautiful – everything from “My fortunes have corrupted honest men” to “Unarm, Eros; the long day’s task is done / And we must sleep” – almost as if it were written for him. Fiennes’ voice is crisp, rough, caressing. It can encompass a thousand moods even though it is the servant of a characterisation that is presenting a great man (who is still very charming) on the skids. Fiennes’ Antony rushes headlong into situations he can’t see coming, or does but can’t be bothered avoiding, or is not quick enough to do so.

It’s a role written for a great actor even though it is his job every so often to move out of the spotlight and concede that this is Cleopatra’s show. Fiennes does all of this grandly, sometimes delicately, savouring the subtlety of the language, and sometimes lungingly, staggering and doing his best to accommodate and co-ordinate with Okonedo’s very differently conceived and graduated Cleopatra.

Cleopatra is, after all, the role Kenneth Tynan patronised Vivien Leigh in, and which has been variously essayed, in the generation after Peggy Ashcroft made it her own, by Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson, Zoe Caldwell, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave. It is the supreme test for an actress who can do the icy cool edge of romantic comedy and then with a deadly razor’s flick of the fated wrist a tragedy that encompasses exultation but is not blinded by its lights. It is the Lear of the female repertoire written for a Rosalind who is just at the edge of dwindling into middle age.   

Okonedo is not equipped for the great pianistic effects of Cleopatra, though she is a formidable actress. She comes at the role in great approximate stabs of emotion that she then dissects into smaller units whose effect she attempts to delectate. The upshot has a raw power and a slashing, generalised intensity, though it’s a bit like watching someone who has had to have each bit of Cleopatra’s wilderness of moods translated for her so she can find some visceral equivalent to them.

She is not one of nature’s stars, with an instinctive sense of highs and lows, nor is she a comedienne who has to stare into the face of desolation as she realises, over and over, there is no way back, that the joke’s on her. But she is an actor of momentum and power and consistency and in the last monumental movement of this play, when Cleopatra declares that “there is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon”, she climbs the mountain with a steadiness that reflects how grand and sad and unearthly this greatest of Shakespeare heroines is.

Anyone who is interested in Shakespeare will want to see this for the glory of Fiennes’ Antony and the steady ambition of Okonedo’s Cleopatra.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that Caesar sounds like a West Point cadet on one note, or that the idea of a female Middle Eastern leader in an American world makes little sense. Antony and Cleopatra is at the very heart of how Shakespeare allowed us to imagine ourselves, and, with a play that atomises success and failure as twin absurdities, we simply have to be grateful for whatever fraction of its vision we get.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 9, 2019 as "Asp the glory".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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