Rhiannon D’Averc reviews a current London production. Anthony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre stars Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo.

Taking on a play that is not one of Shakespeare’s best can seem a tall order for even the most established actor. While the stage and the costumes shine, it’s not quite enough to make this a memorable production.

Ralph brings much of himself and his familiar acting style to the role, though it takes him a fair few acts to warm up and really get into it – only to die just when you think it might be getting interesting. They are using some very convincing squibs for the death scenes, however, which is a nice touch.

Sophie does not play the best part. Much of her scenes are overdone, and one in particular at the end leaves you wishing the asp would hurry up and show itself. There is much volume here with little substance behind it.

Her wardrobe, on the other hand, might well be the star of the show. She wears an array of dresses, almost all floaty floor-length frocks with nipped waists and fluttering sleeves. They dance and float around her body as she moves, lending much to the characterisation and the aura of an Egyptian ruler. Not quite as much as, perhaps, an Egyptian actress might have done – but since representation has at least come on leaps in recent years, we’ll leave that argument there. We do have to disagree with the costume designer’s choice of finest robe, something Cleopatra calls for late on: a green number with glimmering gold embellishment was the clear winner for us, and yet its appearance was all too brief.

The remaining cast have a few moments of brilliance between them, although most manage to be forgettable. Caesar was on the stage for an embarrassingly long time before it was made clear who he was, which might be a problem of costume: with everyone wearing military formal dress only, an admiral might be an emperor.

The production manages to be funniest when they go off script. Particular moments include Cleopatra drowning a messenger in the villa pool, Lepidus drunk on the dance floor, and a few gestures and shrugs here and there which lend a new meaning to old words.

The famous Olivier stage is used well, with different constructions including an opulent poolside villa, the interior and exterior of a ship, conference rooms, and an urban battleground. However, for all the clever choreography and switches, there still manage to be awkward moments. Characters literally run off stage, some several seconds after the next scene – set in a totally different location – has already begun. What an unnecessary distraction on a stage that is well known for its trickery!

In the last moments, a real snake provided perhaps the most visceral reaction from the audience of the whole night. A shame, for those who had already left at the interval (we noticed a few). It did, however, also result in the most badly done moment of the production – an actress being bitten by an app, suffering the poison, then having enough time to run through a (supposedly guarded) door to hand the snake back to its handler before returning to die. Awkward.

There are some daring moments here in which the director allows things to feel just a little bit out of control, and ultimately those are the most enjoyable. If only there had been a few more, this might actually have been a great show.

Photography by Jason Bell and Johan Persson
Anthony and Cleopatra is on now at the National Theatre.

Directed by Simon Goodwin, set design by Hildegard Bechtler, costume design by Evie Gurney.

Cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Nicholas Le Provost, Tim McMullan, Tunji Kasim, Georgia Landers, Hannah Morrish, Gloria Obianyo, Sam Woolf, Katy Stephens

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