What’s worse, being jealous or crazy? This Cleopatra is both

The National’s Antony and Cleopatra is not Concept Shakespeare; news that many prospective audience members will greet with relief.

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Here’s an unofficial yardstick for assessing stage tragedies: the Giggle Index. It is astonishingly hard to maintain dramatic intensity in a room full of strangers, because a common reaction to long stretches of unironically expressed emotion is the strong desire to giggle.

This Antony and Cleopatra provoked two noticeable spikes on the snicker scale: first, when Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra unveils her absolutely foolproof plan to get her servants to tell Antony that she’s dead when she isn’t. (Have you not seen Romeo and Juliet, woman?) Second, when Ralph Fiennes’s Antony spends a full minute stabbing himself to no avail. “Not dead?” he laments, giving his bloodied dagger a you-had-one-job look. “Not dead?”

I blame the length. Simon Godwin’s production does not fill its unforgiving three-and-a-half-hour running time with 210 minutes’ worth of distance run. It starts promisingly, with a neat framing device showing Cleopatra already dead in her monument. The Olivier Theatre’s famous revolve then rewinds the action to her palace – done out like the poshest hotel in Dubai – and a pussy-whipped soy boy Antony chugging beers in an open shirt and ill-advised trousers.

To fill this vast stage, the production leans heavily on spectacle, and Hildegard Bechtler’s set is breathtaking. A hulking battleship, where Antony, Caesar and Lepidus meet Pompey, is suggested by a huge grey keel slicing through the space. The miniature pools in the Egyptian palace are opulent in the first half, and then decayed in the second; a battered, abandoned sun-lounger sticks out of one, like the aftermath of a tourist massacre. Caesar’s war room, by contrast, is clinical in marble, implicitly contrasting his cerebral approach with Antony’s bullheadedness. The only misstep is a battlefield set-up of dusty arches that gave me strong flashbacks to the one of the less good iterations of the Call of Duty series.

The costumes by Evie Gurney are equally gorgeous, clever and allusive. Her Romans are Italians: all double-breasted blazers and loafers with no socks, with the women – here including Katy Stephens’s excellent Agrippa – in sharp tailored dresses and clacking heels. The Egyptians are more relaxed. Okonedo floats around in neutral silks and ballet pumps, except when she is left behind in her pleasure-dome while Antony returns to Italy. Then, she’s in a yellow tiered dress almost identical to the one Beyoncé wore to smash up cars in the Lemonade film. (What’s worse, being jealous or crazy? This Cleopatra is both. And extremely randy too.)

Okonedo’s combination of haughtiness and insecurity is compelling. Her Cleopatra has the air of a fading starlet, afraid that age is indeed withering her, an intense regime of cold cream and fluffy high-heeled slippers awaiting her in the near future.

Ralph Fiennes, though, is less appealing. There’s too much capital-A Acting, and in the second half he lets out a roar taken directly from that scene in Blackadder the Third where the two old lushes are giving the Prince Regent help with his speech. It is a baffling moment, because elsewhere he – correctly – dials down the expected declamations, and aims for something quieter and more moving.

The physical decline of his Antony is expressed through a kind of pansexual goatishness. His most striking kiss is reserved not for his beloved, or his second wife Octavia, but for Pompey, after a night on the lash at sea. “Come down into the boat!” shouts Pompey saucily in return. (The homoerotic elements don’t really add anything to the plot, but I suppose it’s nice to see people enjoying themselves.) The supporting cast, meanwhile, are uniformly excellent, with Fisayo Akinade’s Eros and Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus in particular wringing every drop of pathos out of their appearances.

This is not Concept Shakespeare; news that many prospective audience members will greet with relief. A few flashes on a video screen link Pompey’s anti-piracy patrols to the refugee boats sinking in the contemporary Mediterranean, and the text’s uprisings to the populist scuffles in Italy now. But there seems to be little desire to use the play as a mirror to today’s world; instead, the production takes the story on its own terms.

The trouble is that it severely outstays its welcome. When Antony finally expires, after being clumsily winched up the monument in a sheet, I noted with mild horror there was still half an hour to go. That time is filled with Cleopatra pondering her future, including a section where she laments the lack of suicide methods available to her while standing on a high ledge. (Another twitch on the Giggle Index.) This glacial pacing numbed me, where a speedier production might have delivered a socking punch. But God – the look of it. Glorious. 

“Antony and Cleopatra” runs until 19 January 2019

Antony and Cleopatra
National Theatre, London SE1

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right