SHE SIZZLES WITH her sense of queenly potency, her sexual beauty and the essence of being Cleopatra and all that she represents to the past and the future. This is Sophie Okonedo who defies ordinary adjectives. Her performance is so fine, you cannot take your eyes or your mind away from her for one second, during the 3:30 hour rendition of the NTLive’s Antony and Cleopatra. But more than that, there’s a give and take, a potent energy between her and Ralph Fiennes, her Antony, that lends the tragedy the kind of sensational life and credible love that give this filmed live stage production thrust.
The tale of politics and war, of egos and catastrophe is one where love truly conquers all. This utterly magnificent production directed by Simon Godwin reaches well beyond any tired assertion of cliché and renders Shakespeare’s penning of the complexity of Egyptian and Roman political push and pull amid the torrid and tragic love between Antony and Cleopatra, completely riveting.
But it is not only Fiennes’s equally muscular performance that holds the whole work together. It’s spectacularly strong casting throughout — from the youngest slave to the oldest political player — and the work has a collaborative potency that whisks you into its whirligig of self-belief.
And in this age of superficiality, rotten with fashions that dictate the potting of great narratives and the crass dumbing down everything in sight, when you can sit through three and a half hours of a story written in 1606 and weep openly at the harsh decisions taken to humiliate, to die, to love another, in an uncompromised fashion, you known that there is something more to great art than simple messages.
The set by Hildegard Bechtler turns the world’s axis before your very eyes. The navy amidst roaring waves is invoked in battle; there is a water feature and a monument and an understanding of place and time which is both irrevocable and changing. Doors appear and disappear in an impeccably made set that conforms to the idiosyncrasies of the tale in a way that will leave your jaw open in amazement.
Further to that, is the costume design of this work, by Evie Gurney. Set not in faux ancient eras, the work is cast in an abstract war-related contemporary sense. The business suits and army regalia of the politicos is one thing, the magnificence of Cleopatra, something completely other. Drawing from a vast range of associations that bring in everything from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ dress to ancient Egyptian iconography and repeat designs, to interpretations of Shakespeare’s words, the costumes alone are mastered with an integrity that could set trends. And yet, there’s nothing crass or obvious about them and the choices taken. The overwhelming aspect of this film is quality and class.
When you experience a production of this nature, complete as it is with a live snake as its only bizarre novelty, you realise not only the immense richness and beauty of Shakespeare’s language, the clarity of his narrative and the three-dimensional construction of his characters, but also of the need to honour this type of work with this level of dignity.
The enormity of what SkyArts, the company which sponsors National Theatre Live, brings you, in South Africa, or wherever else it broadcasts, comes into very clear focus with this extraordinary rendition of Antony and Cleopatra. It makes you realise how privileged technology can make us all.
- Antony and Cleopatra is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Simon Godwin for the Olivier Theatre in London. It features a cast headed by Fisayo Akinade, Alexander Cobb, Hiba Elchikhe, Henry Everett, Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Gyimah, Waleed Hammad, Tunji Kasim, Georgia Landers, Nicholas Le Prevost, Tim McMullan, Hannah Morrish, Shazia Nicholls, Gloria Obianyo, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Sampson, Katy Stephens, Alan Turkington, Ben Wiggins, Sam Woolf and Sargon Yelda. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Hildegard Bechtler (set design), Tim Lutkin (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Magnus Mehta (music direction), Michael Bruce (music), Luke Halls (videography), Evie Gurney (costumes) Kev McCurdy (fight choreography) and Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell (movement design). Release date in South Africa, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: January 19 2019, for a limited season.