×

London Theater Review: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ With Ralph Fiennes

Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo mix passion and politics in director Simon Godwin's swan song at the National Theatre.

With:

Fisayo Akinado, Alexander Cobb, Hiba Elchikhe, Henry Everett, Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Gyimah, Waleed Hammad, Tunji Kasim, Goerge Landers, Nicholas Le Prevost, Tim McMullan, Hannah Morrish, Shazia Nichools, Gloria Obianyo, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Sampson, Katy Stephens, Alan Turkington, Ben Wiggins, Sam Woolf, Sargon Yelda.

The personal is political. Politics is personal. Few plays understand either statement as fully as “Antony and Cleopatra.” In showing us the private lives of politicians — the great loves of great warmongers — Shakespeare stresses that the two can never be disentangled. A lovers’ tiff can launch a thousand ships; a red rose can trigger a nuclear strike. With Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as its power couple, Simon Godwin’s clear-sighted production at the National Theatre turns that truth on our tempestuous times. It’s a warning that world leaders are only too human; that passions and politics are best kept apart.

Godwin’s off to Shakespeare Theatre in D.C .next year and, like Nicholas Hytner, he can stitch Shakespeare into the fabric of our world seamlessly. His modern-dress Rome is recognizable from the word go and its elites, like our own, are well out of the fray. Godwin shows us the super-rich at work and at play.

So while Tunji Kasim’s serious Caesar is briefed about populist uprisings and pirate hoards in a marble chamber dotted with indigenous art, Antony and Cleopatra are seen swanning around an Egyptian swimming pool, stretched out on sun loungers, fondling while Rome burns. Antony’s expected back at home, but Fiennes, who has the air of an old hippy on holiday, his swirled shirt open on prayer beads and a faded scarab tattoo, is entirely wrapped up in Okonedo’s glamourpuss Cleopatra. No matter how many suited servants bring “news from Rome” into this languid, luxury resort, it hardly cuts through. He sips from his beer as he plots military maneuvers.

Godwin makes clear that individual relationships and rivalries ripple out across populations at large. Fiennes gives us an ultra-alpha Antony clearly feeling his age who squares up to Caesar and leads troops into misguided battles just to prove his masculinity and impress his impetuous mistress. He crams himself into muscular body armor with vain pomp as Cleopatra marvels on. Okonedo, meanwhile, makes her moods as changeable as her outfits; a diva who knows the power of her allure. When she gets wind of Antony’s second marriage, not only does she nearly drown Fisaya Akinado’s messenger, she threatens to “unpeople Egypt” as a whole. Both are hotheads, both are heavy drinkers and their rash decisions have huge ramifications.

If Antony and Cleopatra govern with their groins, Godwin surrounds them with level-headed advisors. For all he enjoys the perks of Antony’s slipstream, Tim McMullan’s sage Enobarbus calculates the perfect moment to step out of it, and Katy Stephens’ Agrippa counsels Caesar with a cutthroat detachment. They’re offset by Gloria Obianyo’s demure Charmian, who steers Cleopatra with a soft touch. The play’s quieter characters are all but bulldozed, and it’s a measure of the strength of Godwin’s vast cast that so many of them register, even in near silence: Akinado’s Eros, too civil a servant; Nicholas Le Provost’s mumuring military man Lepidus and, best of all, Hannah Morrish’s tongue-tied Octavia, meek to the point of muteness.

However, it all reads better than it plays, and Godwin’s tendency to keep texts almost fully intact, protecting from cuts, bogs it down. His staging falls foul of the play’s second half where it might, so easily, have made a virtue of it. It’s not so much the tip into warfare, staged with flashbangs and Fiennes going full Rambo, that feels over the top, it’s that Godwin never unlocks a language to make something impactful of the play’s plague of suicides. Instead, his staging unravels in a procession of burst bloodbags and corpses, each death a little less impressive than the last, that never keys into the senseless poetry of it all or the headlessness of self-destruction. As swathes of people succumb to their swords or to snakes, personal tragedies pile up into something horribly political.

London Theater Review: 'Antony and Cleopatra' With Ralph Fiennes

Oliver, National Theatre, London; 1200 seats; £60, $79 top. Opened, Sept. 26, 2018, reviewed Sept. 26. Running time: 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A National Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Simon Godwin; Set design, Hildegard Bechtler; Costume design, Evie Gurney; lighting, Tim Lutkin; music, Michael Bruce; movement, Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell; sound, Christopher Shutt; video, Luke Halls; fight direction, Kev McCurdy.

Cast:

Fisayo Akinado, Alexander Cobb, Hiba Elchikhe, Henry Everett, Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Gyimah, Waleed Hammad, Tunji Kasim, Goerge Landers, Nicholas Le Prevost, Tim McMullan, Hannah Morrish, Shazia Nichools, Gloria Obianyo, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Sampson, Katy Stephens, Alan Turkington, Ben Wiggins, Sam Woolf, Sargon Yelda.

More Legit

  • The Kilroys The List

    Listen: New List, New Leaders as the Kilroys Push for Parity

    The collective of writers and producers known as the Kilroys has been pushing for gender parity in the theater for five years now. With the launch last week of the latest edition of the List — the group’s annual round-up (inspired by Hollywood’s Black List) of plays by women, trans and non-binary writers — members [...]

  • Annette Bening

    Star-Studded Cast to Perform Live Reading of the Mueller Report

    Haven’t perused the Mueller report yet? A star-studded cast, including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, and John Lithgow, can read it to you. For one night only on Monday, June 24, stars will perform a live reading of passages from the Mueller report for “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” Robert Schenkkan’s [...]

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content