A GLORIOUS SERPENT OF OLD NILE
This can be a beast of a play: epic, three and a half hours, scenes spread across the Mediterranean from Rome to Cairo by land and sea. It is also prone to disconcert audiences who came for an archetypal story of doomed passion, by socking them with a binful of ancient international politics and offstage battles. It can be a bit of an ordeal. The last RSC one was. So I am happy to say that this time, and in the trickily vast Olivier, director Simon Godwin has absolutely pulled it off .
And not only by casting Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the leads, either. Though yes, Fiennes is a giant: his Antony solidly credible and pulsing with disastrous energy. He is first seen lounging around Cleopatra’s tiled and elegant pool in a holiday shirt and wraparound palazzo pants like any eminent man having a midlife crisis with an exotic mistress. Then struck by “a Roman thought” as his scornful Cleo puts it, he gets into a linen suit and a political conclave with the other two rulers of the Roman triumvirate: Tunji Kasim’s more youthful and rather prim Caesar and the ageing Lepidus (Nicholas le Prevost) who is clearly almost a cipher already, even before he gets incapably drunk on the treacherous Pompey’s ship. That Antony is torn between the ease and love of Egypt and the brutalist war-room world of Rome is beautifully evoked by Hildegarde Bechtler’s contrasting, revolving settings.
But it is Antony’s decline we are riveted by: persuaded into his public duty and accepting Caesar’s pious sister as his wife, he thinks for a while that he is his old self again; but in the battles, the Olivier shaking and echoing with the racket and flash of modern warfare, he reverts and shames himself by fleeing after Cleopatra. Fiennes becomes a Lear, bestial and brutal in his self-hate and resentment of her “You were my conqueror!”. Even his final and famously problematical death is made to work. The muffed self- stabbing which always gets an embarrassed laugh, and the equally risky process of being hauled up the monument in a sheet , contrive to make more sense than usual. He abdicated responsibility, has been politically disastrous and morally neglectful, thus he earned his un-Roman death, honour and reputation ruined. Until, of course, Cleopatra’s extraordinary final encomium shines his name up into the stars again.
And what a Cleopatra! Sophie Okonedo defined herself tonight as her generation’s “lass unparalleled”. . Slinkily serpentine and laughingly seductive at first, petulant in jealousy, a mistress of comic timing and at one point downright drunk in orange flamenco frills, she manages in increasing flashes to remind us that “Kings have trembled” kissing her hand. And in her last scenes, stubborn and resigned and queenly proud, she is mesmerizing.
But the whole cast is full of treats; not least Fisayo Akinade as Eros, forever delivering unwelcome messages (he gets thrown in the pool by Okonedo and drips forlornly in his wet suit repeating the bad news). Yet he too grows to his tragic moment of truth. Tim McMullan as the cynical sarky Enobarbus is tremendous too; as is Sargon Yelda as a cocky, amoral Pompey.
The staging brilliantly respects the pivotal emotional changes of the play. Once, Cleopatra’s pool sinks into the great revolve, revealing a moment’s bleak emptiness as the sacrificial Octavia walks alone crumpling her bridal veil, then in the same movement the side of a great grey warship rises and we are in Pompey’s navy, politics and war always the other side of the romantic coin. Indeed Hannah Morrish’s Octavia, a character often shuffled into insignificance in more hurried productions, has two other tremendous moments: when she learns that her husband has been flaunting himself on twin thrones with Cleopatra and Agrippa says “each heart in Rome does love and pity you”, she crouches in humiliation as we all do under such pity. Her short moment addressing Cleopatra on the monument is striking too. so that you come to feel that for all the war and political machismo and the fall of Antony, this is a play about women.
By the way, it’s a real snake. They warn you about that. But so far Okonedo has kept a firm grip on the writhing, colourful beast even when dying, so it hasn’t made a break for freedom in the front stalls. But if you’re touchy on the subject, sit a bit further back…
box office 020 7452 3000 nationaltheatre.org.uk to 19 Jan
In cinemas live 6 December