Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
National Theatre / directed by Simon Godwin
Seen on January 2, 2019
Score: 5 / 5
Simon Godwin’s tasteful staging of Shakespeare’s tale of romantic infatuation and political abandon is a feast for the eyes and ears. Godwin’s direction is richly imaginative but not overly iconoclastic, which proves to be a good balance for this production. He starts the play at its concluding tableau, with Caesar moralizing over Cleopatra’s self-slain body and Agrippa imploring us to “behold and see” how it all has led to this moment. The whole play, then, silently assumes the posture of an extended, self-conscious flashback, and Godwin masterfully creates an ethereal world of all-consuming passion.
Ralph Fiennes luxuriates in all the extremes of Antony, from his reckless clinging to Cleopatra to his convulsive embrace of an acutely felt death drive. (One cannot help but be alert to the possibility that these two might be the same thing after all.) Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is a true delight in her utterly captivating swings between clear-eyed steadfastness and joyous impulsiveness. In a performance that thoroughly embodies her character’s “infinite variety,” she exudes both refinement and grit regardless of whether Cleopatra is on cloud nine or in the throes of grief. The titular couple is accompanied by a perfectly chosen cast of impressive talent. Tunji Kasim’s Caesar is sharp and balanced; Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus strikes a particularly human chord in his down-to-earth aura; Fisayo Okinade’s Eros is an enticingly ideal servant; and Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers (as Charmian and Iras, Cleopatra’s courtiers) are crucial ingredients of the production’s finely wrought texture.
Hildegard Bechtler’s surprisingly versatile and humbly stylish set works in perfect harmony with Tim Lutkin’s stunning lighting design. Evie Gurney’s costumes boast not only a strong sense of fashion, but also a great power of suggestiveness regarding the characters and the “imagined present” that they inhabit. Cleopatra’s wardrobe is especially charming and can easily make its way to the nearest department store. Throughout, the production’s dynamic but unified colour palette is wondrous. Michael Bruce’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design inject just the right amount of sonic titillation—and provocation—into a theatrical world that is always already brimming with intensity. My only hesitation is about the projections, as well as the occasional use of pre-recorded video, both of which are unnecessary and do not belong to this production. But in a work of this scope and richness, I am more than willing to turn a blind eye to them.