Antony and Cleopatra: one of Shakespeare’s more dynamic and complex tragedies, based on the true historical romance between the Egyptian Pharaoh and Roman general. What I like about the play is how it opens just before their affair breaks the international relations between their countries, so you get to contrast their carefree, open life before other people get in the way. Antony, now widowed, has to return to Rome and marries Caesar’s sister to restore peace – much to the jealousy of Cleopatra – but ends up running back to Rome. Caesar turns on him, resulting an Italian civil war between the two generals and their armies. After failing, Antony stabs himself, believing Cleopatra to be dead (Romeo-style) and she later dies in that dignified way: asp-poison. Pretty standard Shakespearean tragedy, to be honest.
National Theatre is playing it at their stage on Southbank, but I watched the Live Stream show 200 miles north at York’s City Screen. It’s about the fourth NT live screening I’ve seen now, and it did not disappoint. Directed by Simon Godwin and with stars Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, I wasn’t expecting it to. NT lived up to all its standards with extravagant sets, elaborate costumes, and excellent acting. The stage was a little too overdone at times – I sometimes wonder how they would cope with a typically Brechtian play. But nevertheless, it creates a much more immersive experience.
Fiennes and Okonedo were phenomenal. Chemistry was clear from the beginning, establishing their relationship in a steamy setting to build upon. You could really believe that its not just lust keeping them together – each one has a turn to get angry at the other, proving their relationship only gets stronger in harder times. Each was dynamic in their own right as well; Okonedo’s performance stayed entertaining, particularly when dunking a messenger, and Fiennes perfectly portrayed Antony’s debilitating character as he slowly loses the respect and friendship of those around him. Shout-outs go to Katy Stephens as a strong-willed, female Agrippa and Gloria Obianyo as Charmian, Cleo’s slightly sassy, but very supportive handmaid.
The costumes were incredible. As a promo, NT showed us a short video from the Costume Designer, Evie Gurney. She talked us through the process of Cleopatra’s dresses – I would have been happy wearing any of them – and using modern female icons for inspiration instead of historical influences. A favourite was Beyonce’s flamboyant, frilly golden dress from her ‘Lemonade’ video; as Gurney rightly said, she is a modern day queen. Whilst Egypt’s clothes were looser, brighter, and altogether looked more fun to wear, Rome was much more formal and conservative with military style uniforms. It was clear which rulers took their jobs and consequences more seriously.
As I said, the set was extravagant to say the least. As per, NT have a huge budget with these productions; there was a real water feature (I kept getting visions of actors slipping in accidentally) that allowed a freedom and playfulness to Cleopatra’s palace. The most exciting thing about Rome were the ‘marble’ statue heads. Their interactive screen just made me feel like I was in a boardroom sick of my imaginary office job. Complete with set pieces mechanically sliding in and out of the stage and full-size building structures, it represented Godwin’s point of the two contrasting cities.
Lighting was smooth. I didn’t really notice it, so they obviously did a good job. The music got too dramatic at times – I feel like they have a signature sound when things get ‘super intense’ on stage; the music comes on so you know it’s an important moment and you need to pay attention. It sounds like when you’ve hit a gong, but the echo just hangs there, and hangs, and then gradually fades out…I just find it distracting mostly, but it might work for some people.
There were also a few technical glitches – obviously this couldn’t be helped as a live screening of a real performance, but that’s the first time in about four shows that I’ve experienced it, so don’t expect one if you ever see an NT Live production.
A little pricey for students at £17.00 with discount, but it’s not your average theatre production. Global stars and a stunning design made it worth my while. Not to mention one of the more interesting and complicated tragedies; no better backdrop for an ancient Egyptian-Italian romance than civil war and turmoil with inevitable suicides. Antony and Cleopatra runs until 19 Jan at the National and has an encore Live Streaming performance on the 2 Jan. Catch it if you can.