As the lockdown continues, the National Theatre is screening another gem from its history, as part of its National Theatre at Home fundraising campaign. This time, the play being shown is Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Simon Godwin. With Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the titular roles and in a modernised setting, this production is an emotionally driven and offers an inventive interpretation of the text.
In an interview with theatre critic Fiona Mountford for the podcast National Theatre Talks, Godwin states that, rather than adhere entirely to one vision of Egypt—be it the modern Egypt, the Egypt of historical fact or Shakespeare’s imagined exotic empire—he decided to combine elements of all three and aim for a ‘heightened realism’. One way in which this is achieved is with the set. Egypt possesses an easy grandeur, with mosaic walls reflecting dazzling pools of cool water. Contrasted with this is a stark and minimalist Rome, its sheer grey walls demonstrating the oppressive and repressive state that drags away Antony from his opulent haven.
The challenge of staging compelling scenes of battle is well met. Flashing screens of military footage and choppy ocean waters accompanied by thundering drums and a haunting choir represent a naval battle; a rotating floor and moving walls keep the later battle on land frantic, as we follow the progress of Antony and his fellow soldier Scarus (Alexander Cobb) through a tightly choreographed fight. Other moments of spectacle include Pompey’s (Sargon Yelda) ship rising from the floor, while the use of a live snake at the play’s conclusion grounds us back in reality for the emotional payoff of Cleopatra’s death.
Creative costume design likewise contributes to creating a sense of timelessness about the production. In Cleopatra’s outfits, costume designer Evie Gurney evokes modern day ‘high fashion’, but accented with recurring Ancient Egyptian motifs such as palm trees and wheat. In a companion video to the recording, she explains how she modelled Cleopatra’s wardrobe after ‘women today with a big global profile’. This is an inspired approach. Even if it is initially a little distracting to see Okonedo sport Beyoncé’s iconic ruffled yellow gown from the album Lemonade, the fact the dress is so instantly recognisable only serves to emphasise what Gurney is stressing: that Cleopatra is a powerful woman, but also one who is under constant public scrutiny. And, as Beyoncé did with Lemonade, she is a woman who will ‘create a platform for herself to take back the narrative of her own story’, in this case by using the last of her bodily autonomy to halt Caesar’s plans to parade her as a spoil of war. Thoughtful details such as these set this portrayal of Antony and Cleopatra apart.
Godwin further distinguishes the production with minor alterations to the script. Forty-five minutes worth of writing has been cut, but its absence is not felt in a tightly-paced three hour show. Several scenes with an unnamed messenger have been given to Eros (Fisayo Akinade), elevating his role to Antony’s personal aide without altering a single line of dialogue. This lends a new emotional weight to the scene where he decides to commit suicide rather than follow Antony’s command to kill him.
Of course, when dealing with professional actors of the National Theatre’s calibre, all the performances are to be commended. Fiennes and Okonedo are borderline hysterical in their tumultuous passion for one another. Each portrays their role with equal parts humour and pathos, humanising these dramatic figures. Tunji Kasim’s Caesar is arrogant and proud beneath a charming front. And Tim McMullan stands out as Enobarbus, by turns sardonic and sensitive.
This production is to be commended for its innovative and thoughtful use of theatrical techniques—set design, tech, costume, choreography, performance—to add rich details and new layers of meaning to an already beloved and well-known story, invigorating Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.