For spectators it’s potentially Shakespeare’s most boring play with the moments of brilliance swamped by hours of interchangeable military types being quite cross about obscure battles and regime change. Actors in the title roles must embody two of the most charismatic figures in history, and any director has to conquer all the challenges and bind everything into a coherent and watchable whole.
Let me start by saying, on this occasion, everyone succeeds brilliantly. I’ve been bored rigid by past productions, even when they’ve starred favourite actors like Judy Dench, Eve Best and Kim Catrall, but this version had me gripped throughout.
The story takes place at a time when rule of Ancient Rome was divided amongst three men. The two you need to pay attention to are the the ambitious Caesar who’ll attempt to steal complete power during the play and Anthony who is missing, much to Rome’s annoyance, because he’s holed up with his lover, the wild and passionate Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
Before long the Romans, led by Caesar, are at war with Egypt, led by the couple. The play charts the ebb and flow of the hostilities and the tragic end of the losers.
It’s a lot of military strategy to digest but director Simon Godwin’s stroke of genius is to make each soldier highly individual so they don’t all merge into one. This allows the audience more chance than usual of following what’s going on, both on the battlefield, and, as importantly here, at sea.
Sophie Okonedo is mesmerising as Cleopatra. Very obviously obsessed with Anthony, she stalks around her palace like a Hollywood goddess, inspiring both fear and devotion in her servants with her diva mood swings. What blew me away is the clarity and detail with which she delivers Shakespeare’s text so it’s never confusing and becomes as easy to follow as modern speech whilst retaining all the poetry and style.
Ralph Fiennes plays Anthony. In recent years this acclaimed film and theatre actor had become very mannered and stagey, employing a nasal, spiky delivery we rarely hear in real life. There’s none of that here. Godwin has helped him shape a career-best performance. It’s often hard, in some productions, to care about this lumbering bear of a veteran but Fiennes succeeds in conveying the infallibility and insecurity of a man losing his grip on youth and authority and over-compensating as a result. When he realises he’s finished his breakdown is very moving.
The two have terrific sexual chemistry and it’s easy to believe in their affair. Again this is rare for productions of A&C which often have a star in one of the roles and a less charismatic actor struggling to compete in the other. These two are perfectly and evenly matched.
On the huge stage of the Olivier theatre the production is spectacular too. Employing modern dress the design contrasts the exotic louchness of a 5 star Luxor hotel with the business centre efficiency of the Radisson-like Roman offices. It all gets blown to smithereens and starts to look like the war torn cities we see on the news. The elaborate revolves and the stage machinery make everything spin intoxicatingly before your eyes.
A terrific victory over a very challenging play for all involved and highly recommended as an intelligent, epic night out.