a review by the Vulture (soon to have a personal account set up).
(curated by the Crow.)
An Introduction, by the Crow
The Crow: In early 2018, almost exactly to the day, I was introduced to one of the Swan(!)‘s friends. At the time, they were both involved in a production of Plaza Suite at a local theatre (which shall go unnamed).
Since that meeting, this individual has come to be adopted under the tyrannical rule of the Corvid Master-Race. Given his status as a regular attendee of stage productions in and around our home-base of London, as well as his affinity for Shakespeare and the stage alike, it felt only natural to hand him the reigns to — and the rule over — The Corvid Review‘s new “Theatre Reviews” category.
And so, without further ado, I present to you our latest member: the Vulture.
Tʜᴇ Tʀᴀɢᴇᴅɪᴇ ᴏꜰ Aɴᴛʜᴏɴɪᴇ,
SPOILER LEVELS at MODERATE
Enter THE VULTURE
‘Eternity was in our eyes and lips’ and in my clapping hands after this phenomenal production!
To start with, it is important to note that any director putting on Antony & Cleopatra immediately faces a challenge present in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but especially so in this one. That challenge is the huge array of changing scenes to various locations contained on a stage, in complete contradiction to Aristotle’s unity of place. And in Antony & Cleopatra, the locations shift continually, from Egypt all the way to Rome, both exotic locations which demand grand visuals in order to justify their theatrical usage. The solution this production of Antony & Cleopatra (at the Olivier stage, National Theatre) – starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Mark Antony and Cleopatra respectively – finds not only keeps true to the source material, but somehow also manages to fully encompass the gravitas of both worlds.
To summarise the plot: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is the story of ageing general Mark Antony, who has neglected his duties to Rome in favour of remaining (with his troops) in Egypt with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, with whom he has begun an intensely passionate relationship. Antony and his soldiers are very happy with the arrangement, as they are afforded many luxuries in Egypt; however, Antony is soon pulled back to Rome when fellow Roman Pompey threatens to start a revolution, and the remaining leaders, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus (doesn’t that sound like a good name for a band?) complain that his absence is becoming problematic. From there, alliances are formed and broken, battles are won and lost, and many are stabbed in the back. I shall go through my personal viewing experience as accurately as I can in order to best convey my opinion on this production: spoilers ahead.
What immediately struck me was not that it opened with an image of the final scene (this is not uncommon in adaptations of the Bard’s work), but the clever reworking of the first speech in the play to serve as a prologue rather than a character’s opening words. I am not usually a fan of reworked Shakespeare, however this works extraordinarily well, with very little having to be changed, save for the line
‘Nay but this dotage of our generals o’er flows the measure’
which has been changed to
‘dotage of our ANTONYS o’er FLOWED’.
In particular the final words of that speech, ‘Behold and see’, initially referring to the character of Philo requesting his companion to observe with him, now acts as a foreboding to the audience. After this we see Egypt on the Olivier Stage and it does not disappoint. The lights, as well as the gorgeous set, create a stunning visual. The production is in modern dress, which I always feel can be a clever and intriguing move when done right, which this production does, or an overly gimmicky and distracting spectacle when done wrong. In this case the modern dress helps us realise that the events of the play, although based on historical occurrences, are truly timeless, and this becomes especially clear after we have seen our leads embrace and depart, and we see Rome for the first time.
Like most productions this version has Rome and Egypt in juxtaposition, with Egypt being lavish and warm, utilising rich, golden coloured lighting, and Rome being cold and pragmatical. Once in Rome Octavius and Lepidus, the other two on the triumvirate, confront Antony on his neglect of duty – who, in a clever move by director Simon Goodwin, all wear the uniforms of different branches of the armed forces.
(They are coded as follows:)
- Mark Antony = Army
- Lepidus = Air Force
- Octavius = Navy
They discover that the only way to unite their kingdoms is for Antony to marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. He does this; and Cleopatra, upon hearing the news, goes into a terrible rage, beating the messenger who delivers the news in one of the more comical of the scenes, done very humorously here with fantastic comedic acting and timing by the messenger, played by Fisayo Akinade.
The acting thus far has been stellar from the main cast. Ralph Fiennes captures both the greatness and weight, and the ageing lethargy of a once powerful man past his prime. Sophie Okonedo manages to balance dignity with petulance perfectly, which makes her drastic mood swings believable. Antony’s right hand man Enobarbus is played delightfully by Tim McMullan, who offers a new take on the character, portraying him as a jack-the-lad rather than simply Antony’s lickspittle.
Due to Cleopatra’s rage and his love for her, Antony crowns himself and Cleopatra as rulers of his third of the Roman Republic, and chastises Octavius for imprisoning Lepidus previously. Octavius, played by Tumji Kasim, is enraged by Antony’s actions and, in short, this leads to war between Mark Antony in Egypt, and Octavius in Rome. The constant scene changes between Egypt and Rome are very cleverly done utilising the revolving stage the Olivier is famous for, with a wall being placed in the middle of the stage, one side being the set for Egypt, and the other the set for Rome.
Fast-forwarding (as there is a word limit on these reviews) Antony is later on enraged that he has lost a major battle after Cleopatra’s troops flee, this is told to us through the infinite ‘All is lost speech’ in which Antony despairs at the loss and denounces Cleopatra as a ‘triple turn’d whore’. This is a difficult speech both for the weight of the drama and for the notoriety; Ralph Fiennes performs this speech subdued and broken, which is powerful after so many angry and hate fueled interpretations of this speech.
After many misunderstandings, both Antony and Cleopatra separately make the choice to kill themselves rather than face the indignity of being caught. After their reunion and Antony’s death, which shows off both the actors’ skills, Cleopatra delivers her final speech. This is where Sophie Okonedo’s acting skills really show. Like Fiennes she has the challenge of delivering a notoriously well-known Shakespeare speech, in this case ‘Give me my robe and my crown’; this is a daunting task for any actor, and yet Okonedo manages to give the words such quiet sorrow that it is easy to forget you have heard it a thousand times, no small feat (especially since I’ve heard it more times than that)! Not only that, but her acting during the scene in which Cleopatra kills herself by allowing a venomous snake to bite her (a real snake in this production!) is so believable, in the way that she goes into a trance while saying her final words and dying, that it makes what can easily be a laughable scene in other productions one of the most touching moments of the play.
In conclusion: Simon Goodwin manages to update one of Shakespeare’s largest plays in a way which is relevant and thought-provoking, while also being authentic and true to the source material.
The only casting choices I took issue with where that of Hannah Morrish and Tunji Kasim as Octavia and Caesar. There is nothing wrong with Hannah Morrish’s performance as such, but she speaks very quietly and at times she is not audible, whereas although Tunji Kasim’s performance starts out with great authority, he keeps this note throughout the play and as a result is not especially interesting.
However, I felt this was overall a thoroughly entertaining and good quality production of a superb play I’d highly recommend watching if you can get hold of tickets or on NT Live as this play most certainly ‘makes hungry where most she satisfies’.
THE VULTURE: 9/10
Here’s the official poster (image grabbed from Margo’s Musings via Google):