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Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre at Home

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Simon Godwin

In a bid to save its work, National Theatre at Home is rolling out the big guns at last. With Rupert Norris’ warning that the venue could be out of business by the end of 2020 without a subsidy, the latest screening of Antony and Cleopatra – one of its most recent productions – comes loaded with meaning. The message tonight is clear; the star power of its actors, the sublime technical wizardry of the sets and costumes that transport the audience between Rome and Egypt, and even the live snake all under threat: drastic action is needed.

And drastic action is something both Antony and Cleopatra know a lot about, lovers on top of the world at the start of the play who find themselves backed into a corner from which neither their strategic prowess or personal charisma can save them. Simon Godwin’s 2018 production emphasises the duplicity of political strategy, so whether land or love is at stake, ultimately all partnerships will be betrayed.

Shakespeare’s play may chart one of the greatest love stories of all time, but the focus is on the military, detailing the fading grandeur of a Roman hero and the battle planning errors that lead to his ultimate defeat. Godwin’s production emphasises the numerous contrasts in the play – the architectural colour of Egypt and marbled Rome; the warlike Empire dressed in service uniforms and the luxurious civilian style of Cleopatra’s court, and the masculine and feminine examples of leadership.

NT Live’s camerawork closely captures the action, with even the widest shot of the full stage never betraying the audience in the room. There is a cinematic skill within the filming choices that allow the viewer to follow the perspectives of the three protagonists, as well as the fierce energy of the modern battle sequences that take events beyond individual control. Evie Gurney’s beautiful dresses for Cleopatra and Hildegard Bechtler’s sumptuous sets sparkle on screen, whether it be the expensive luxury of Cleopatra’s palace garden or Pompey’s ship which looms dramatically from the lower reaches of the Olivier drum.

Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is a complex creation, playful and histrionic at first, demanding attention, loyalty and devotion from her partner. But the audience never knows, even in the most revealing close-up, whether this Cleopatra is truly in love with Antony or hitching herself to the most powerful star in order to sustain her throne. Okonedo’s wonderful Cleopatra is always a performer, a lover of drama centred around herself that keeps the audience guessing. But when Antony marries Octavia, there is a notable shift in the tenor of Okonedo’s interpretation that seemingly alters Cleopatra’s motivation for the rest of the play.

Ralph Fiennes’ Antony is more clearly devoted to his lover while ever-grappling with his commanding reputation. Grown indolent and sluggish at the start of the play, Fiennes – who played the young Antony in Julius Caesar at the Barbican in 2005 – shows a man reinvigorated by his return to Rome and the political influence he resumes. The eventual breakdown of that power and crushing defeat is movingly played as Antony contends with betrayal, dishonour and suicide. Together Fiennes and Okonedo are like fire and fire, a combustible pairing that turns from love to war in an instant.

On screen, Godwin’s production zips along despite its three hour and 10-minute running time, emphasising the political and tactical elements of the story to show how potentially uneven this great love story may have been. As a Queen with limited military knowledge, Cleopatra has everything to lose against the Roman Empire and powerful alliances are her only chance of survival. Alliances may be the National’s saving grace as well.

Streaming here until 14 May 2020

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A combustible pairing

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