“If you find him sad, say I am dancing”: NT Live’s Antony & Cleopatra

I was really excited when I saw this production listed under “coming soon” this fall, and crushed when it disappeared. My cinema chain apparently also belongs to those who are dropping NT Live. Now the closest theaters showing it are at least 90 miles away. I’d been so thrilled about this one that I made the trek, and I will probably do it again for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II. I doubt I will do it for their new plays, though. But it’s really depressing overall; I really looked forward to seeing these productions as it made me feel connected to the larger world.

Antony and Cleopatra tells the story of Mark Antony, the Roman politician and general who was the last major competitor to cede authority to Octavius (the later Augustus) as a consequence of his suicide in the second civil war, and his lover Cleopatra, the last autonomous ruler of Egypt before it became part of the Roman Empire. It is a hard play to characterize — history, tragedy, romance, with occasional comedic elements, but it is probably Shakespeare’s best role for a female and although long, it is quite well-paced (depending how quickly Cleopatra’s death is played). I personally feel one gets more out of it if one has read Plutarch (on which it is based), or at least knows the outlines of the events of the period, but one can also enjoy the play without all this.

It is superfluous at this point to state that this is an excellent production in terms of its visuality, its concept design, and the performances. The rotating stage as a way of distinguishing between severe Rome and louche Egypt works tremendously well, and both the scenery and the music underline this contrast. The way the stage becomes a ship is also particularly effective. The costumes are excellent — drab when they need to be drab, eye-drawing when they need to attract the audience’s attention. It does give in to the current fad in Shakespeare by staging the battle scenes as if they are dance scenes with disco lighting involving weapons, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a Shakespeare piece that satisfactorily solves this problem. I don’t know either if I cared for the technique of beginning with the end, so that the entire play appears in flashback, and I found the transition to the actual order of the play awkward and not a little confusing. More potentially troubling is that (yet again — as with McKellen’s Lear, like Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, like Norris’ Macbeth) this seems to be a Shakespeare production that isn’t really “about” anything, at least not beyond the inevitable suicides of the protagonists. I never found myself thinking, “oh, that makes me think of _______,” and given how much time they spend on battles and political debates — I don’t think a single scene was cut — this choice is a bit odd. I’ve always thought this play is mostly about how a powerful man lost sight of his ends in the embrace of an equally powerful, but much more whimsical woman, but the way the play detaches the politics of the day from the love affair interferes with that interpretation.

The non-traditional casting here works especially well, reflecting both the diversity of the Roman Empire itself and that of the United Kingdom. Several of the smaller roles are played with quiet bravura, especially by Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, who deftly combines humor and world-weariness in his performance, and by Sargon Yelda as the excitable Pompey [Sextus]. I also enjoyed Henry Everett as (a very Scottish) Ventidius. The only disappointment in the supporting ranks as Tunji Kasim as [Octavius] Caesar, who has no nuance at all in his delivery; every speech is delivered at the same volume and with the same energy level.

But of course, this is Antony and Cleopatra’s story, and we spend the majority of our attention on Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo and both of them together.

This is really Okonedo’s play. It’s hard to find enough superlatives about her performance. I’d seen her in The Hollow Crown and she’s got regal down, but I was more surprised here by her seductive, funny, aggressive, even bombastic moments, by the reckless energy with which she invested the Egyptian queen, by the way she makes Cleopatra’s dignity almost impetuous. It backfires at times (she has us laughing even when she’s hoisting Antony’s bleeding body onto her monument), but it is constantly entrancing to watch and I can’t help thinking that Enobarbus’ line about Cleopatra very much applies to Okonedo in the role: “…she makes hungry / where most she satisfies” (Act II, scene ii). The play gives her a lot of lines after Antony disappears from the stage, and hearing every one is worth it. I just wanted more. Even when I was thinking about driving 90 miles home, I’d have stayed another hour just to see more of her stuff.

Fiennes is good, too, and he probably deserves all the accolades he’s getting, but it ended up being hard for me to enthuse about him. He has a hand and shoulder mannerism or tic that I find distracting, and I kept thinking, oh, I bet he extends his right hand here, and then he did it, which was frustrating. But he can’t be faulted on his diction, or his delivery, or the style with which he fits himself into the role. Still, I find that he of all the actors fit least well into the production as a whole (and I’ve had this thought before with a lead in an NT Live piece — Whishaw’s Brutus in Julius Caesar). The other actors seem to be going for a naturalistic, contemporary, if nonetheless precise style, and with almost all of them we hear at least pieces of their accents of origin — I definitely heard Scotland and northern England and maybe some Irish as well? In comparison, to me Fiennes’ pronunciation stands out in an uncomfortable way — his Antony seemed more patrician even than Cleopatra. Fiennes seems to me to belong to a different generation than the rest of the cast, and so the way he ends his couplets –with the slowing, monotonous, unpunctuated delivery that signaled “this is Shakespearean blank verse, pay attention, folks, this speech is ending now” — always reminded me we were in a play and not in a story. I think this style works for Ian McKellen as Lear; it works for Patrick Stewart; it works for the men who were on the stage in the 80s in general; but it didn’t work for me here in a production where no one else was playing the game. And nonetheless, I acknowledge that the execution is perfect according to the style; I just don’t especially like the style; it feels a bit dusty to me. Based on his performance in this role, Fiennes justly deserves his reputation as a great interpreter of Shakespeare. I was just looking for something else, something more surprising.

For comparison, Herba’s review of the live production (in German). She, of course, loved Fiennes. I forgot to mention, and I’m too tired to develop it now, that Fiennes and Okonedo have great chemistry together, too. This play is still running and for anyone who can see it person, I would definitely recommend it.

~ by Servetus on December 9, 2018.

12 Responses to ““If you find him sad, say I am dancing”: NT Live’s Antony & Cleopatra”

  1. that’s a bummer that it’s harder for you to go and see the NT plays 😦 90 miles in the UK can take between 1.5 – 2.5 hours depending on what type of roads you have to use-how long did your drive take?

    i’m quite lucky that in one of the small town near to me (Chepstow) there’s a group of locals running The Drill Hall and they work very hard to put on live showings of the NT plays and ballet and they do rep of the films that get missed in the big chains

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    • It’s two-ish hours, depending on traffic at the destination. On Thursday I was already halfway there for work, so that helped a bit. For this kind of thing to work in a smaller town you need exactly what you a describe, a group of dedicated people who get the word out and keep the audiences up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw it Thursday evening and when I discovered it was 3 hours 40 minutes I was shocked, however that included the 15 minute interval and chat about the costumes. I agree with your review.
    Caesar was mis cast ,it was some time before we realised who he was!
    Sophie Okonedo was the star.
    Almost laughed when they hauled Ralph Fiennes onto the roof as he was dying that was awkward and daft.

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    • I had the same experience — hadn’t looked at the time beforehand and was really shocked! Although if you’re going to play every single scene in the play, it’s hard to avoid that length. I’d probably have cut the battle scenes (at the least), but that’s just me.

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  3. Lucky for me the Scotiabank theatre chain will show the encores. I also want to catch the madness of King George.

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  4. I was going to go see it but then couldn’t make it. Maybe one day…

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