Days Out: Shakepeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at National Theatre Waterloo

BY CALUM FRASER
calum@slpmedia.co.uk

Shakespeare is arguably the greatest literary mind that Britain has ever produced. But I’ve never managed to click with his work.

Maybe I was scarred by being forced to read Macbeth again and again and again during my standard grades – the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs.

Then a few months ago I thought I’d give old beardy Bill another crack. I went to see Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre in July.

It was an immersive production starring Ben Whishaw, Q from the new James Bond films, and David Morrissey, probably best known as The Governor in the American hit series Walking Dead.

I certainly felt like the walking dead when I left the show. My mind was numb as some of the most powerful poetic lines ever written completely passed me by in a haze of melodramatic shouts and screams.

I didn’t have a clue what was going on. “Okay,” I told myself. “No more Shakespeare, time to get back to the safety of the cinema”.

But then a new production of Antony and Cleopatra opened at the National Theatre starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the eponymous characters. I was convinced by a relative to give Willie the Shake one more go.

I decided to read the play beforehand. It made a world of difference. It’s a pain and it feels like being back at school, constantly referring to Google to find out what on earth is going on. It was worth it, though.

Like learning a new language, gradually you check Google less and you get little sparks of excitement when you understand a joke. I’m certainly not fluent in Shakespeare, but I could just about order a tankard of ale from a strumpet at the local tavern.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.

I got to my seat at the National in Waterloo by 7pm, there was a 20 minute break at 8:30pm and we were back down until 10:30pm.

Main picture: Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra. Above, Fisayo Akinade as Antony’s attendant, Eros

It went by in a flash. I was (almost) completely immersed. You cannot take your eyes off Ralph Fiennes.

He charts Antony’s fall beautifully. Antony was one of Rome’s greatest leaders. After Julius Caesar’s assassination he joined forces with the new Caesar, Octavius, to defeat the killers Gaius Cassius and Marcus Brutus.

Antony rules a third of the Roman Empire by the time we meet him in Antony and Cleopatra.

But he’s getting old and losing his touch. He doesn’t quite have the will and stamina to match the ambition of the younger Octavius, who is later to become Caesar Augustus.

In Egypt, Antony falls for the mercurial Cleopatra. The play follows his journey from master of the world to being barely master of himself.

Sophie Okonedo is stunning as Cleopatra. You can never pin her down. At times she comes across as a sulky spoilt brat, sending servants back and forth at her every whim. She would not look out of place on a modern day reality TV show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians maybe.

Then at other times she is stoic, with a huge capacity for empathy.

Like the repeated references to snakes and reptiles that the other characters use to describe her, she can shed a layer and start again seamlessly.

Another character of note is Antony’s right hand man, Enobarbus, played by Tim McMullan.

He is to Antony what Ron Weasley is to Harry Potter. Slightly buffoonish, fighting for their place in the drama and endearing to the crowd.

Except Enobarbus then betrays his loyal friend and the anguish of his decision is one of the most emotionally poignant points in the play.

The set matches the epic scale of the drama. The stage revolves as the scenes jump from colourful Egypt to sterile Rome.

A huge ship emerges from the ground at one point while music thunders from the stalls. The only weakness in the production for me was Tunji Kasim as Caesar.

He looks the part, dressed in a clean cut suit like a steely city banker. But Tunij doesn’t quite get the machiavellian determination of a man who is happy to sacrifice his sister to a lecherous rogue and strike down all his allies in order to rule Rome.

He comes across as more of a keen intern fresh from Oxbridge instead of the hardy business pro. But it’s a small glitch in an otherwise slick and powerful production.

I’m now eyeing up the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet production at the Barbican.

For Antony and Cleopatra tickets go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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