Sophie Okenado as Cleopatra and Ralph Fiennes as Anthony (c)Jason Bell

O heavenly mingle! Antony & Cleopatra are a perfect match

6 December 2018 | Rosa Johnston-Flint

Unless you’ve had your head in a sarcophagus for the past few hundred years, chances are you know this is a historical play. But would you expect it to be hysterical too? Simon Godwin’s production coaxes out the humour, playing for love and laughs alongside the inevitable leadership squabbles and – spoiler alert – ending in tears.

Shakespeare’s sequel to Julius Caesar opened at the National Theatre in September and proceeded to scoop ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Actress’ at last month’s Evening Standard theatre awards for Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) respectively.
So anyone going to see this in the Olivier Theatre, or cinemas nationwide on 6th December, will be expecting to see some top-notch performances. But one thing audiences might not be prepared for is how genuinely laugh-out-loud funny this Shakespearean Tragedy is, and how modern some of the turns of phrase sound in this shrewd, fully-realised performance of a weighty classic.
Even if you don’t know your ‘thee’ from your knee (hint: it just means ‘you’), seasoned Shakey fans and novices alike will soon be keeping their ears peeled for a punchline, rather than bracing themselves for the brunt of Tragedy. While this pulse of laughter is no recent revelation – Mark Rylance played the Egyptian queen nearly 20 years ago, treading a similar fine line between farce and heartbreak – the actors don't skip a comic beat, and it’s an absolute riot.

Image credit: Johan Persson
The legendary lovers, played by Oscar-nominated Sophie Okonedo and Ralph “my brother is Shakespeare in the film” Fiennes, a.k.a. Lord Voldemort, make a brattish and irrational yet utterly irresistible double act.
As their charmed lives begin to break down, attacked on two fronts by politics and old age, we see their swagger become a flailing spiral – but one still peppered with laughs as they are delightfully able to voice the irony of their situations.
A skilled Shakespearean veteran, Ralph Fiennes takes ownership of his role with admirable stamina, running around a popping war zone before an intense and protracted meeting with death moments later. Fiennes struts as the Roman leader, oozing the confidence and self-assuredness of a man who could credibly ensnare the heart of Cleopatra.
Meanwhile Sophie Okonedo is equally fearless and compelling as the historic ill-fated queen, with just a touch of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I circa Blackadder. Okonedo is also every inch the icon, rocking a resplendent wardrobe that extends from a yellow Beyoncé-esque gypsy dress to the plush, Elizabeth Taylor-worthy green and gold robes of a deity.

Like fringes of Cleopatra’s dancing hem, the cast ripple out in appropriately dapper attire, which feels closer to Casablanca than Alexandria in its open shirts, knee-length skirts and double-breasted linens, before the costume escalates alongside the action into contemporary army uniforms.
Live music featuring the melancholy hum and howl of an oud, alongside a steady thud of percussion, gives an ancient middle eastern vibe that discreetly offsets the anachronistic outfits. There’s no distinct relocation of time or place, which could be quite jarring for a play with such clearly defined characters and circumstances, and the natural conclusion seems to be an updated yet nostalgic version of Shakespeare’s imagined Egypt.
The stage sets admirably match the scale of the drama: it’s all mellow, sepia-brown in Egypt before the action plunges into Roman Italy, a cool world of warships and military technology. It’s almost forgivable to suggest this feels like a really high-end television drama (just maybe don’t say that in the theatre).
Don’t miss a show-stopping performance from two highly accomplished British actors, who are able to truly stretch themselves in a production of this calibre and magnitude.

Catch Antony & Cleopatra in cinemas nationwide on 6th December at part of NT Live, and at the National Theatre in London until 19th January. Check your local cinema for Encore screenings that may take place after the run has finished.

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