Home » London Theatre Reviews » Review: Antony and Cleopatra at The Olivier Theatre | National Theatre

Review: Antony and Cleopatra at The Olivier Theatre | National Theatre

Antony & Cleopatra cast. Image by Johan Persson
Antony & Cleopatra cast. Image by Johan Persson

“Epic” is a much overused, and mis-used, word (as in “It was epic!”). So if you want to hold up a good example of an epic play, Antony and Cleopatra fits the bill nicely – heroic deeds, legendary figures, grand scale, exotic locations.

It therefore needs an epic treatment, an understanding of what epic is and how epic works: Simon Godwin’s production at the National hits that mark unerringly with a no holds barred epic vision.

Ralph Fiennes is the war-weary, self-deprecating, life-scarred, love-lorn, long-in-the-tooth Mark Antony. This is no dashing lover, this is no smooth-talking lothario, this is no Romeo: this is middle-aged lust personified, a man who’s been around a bit and who seeks succour in the beguiling glamour of a queen rendering him purblind to any defects in her personality that may be lurking.

Fiennes is a natural in this role and as he takes us with him on his final, and ultimately fatal, greatest hits battle-tour we discover a man imprisoned by love and loving imprisonment a little too much. He’s flawed and he knows it. He’s having a gentle, age-related nightmare that intensifies with every false step and Fiennes gets us empathising and sympathising at the same time. Great stuff!

There’s a superb cast to support him as one would expect at the National: lovely to see that great hurrumpher Nicholas Le Prevost as the slightly doddery, Comical Ali-like, wine-oholic Lepidus, part of the Triumvirate along
with Antony, and Octavius Caesar, played with disarmingly menacing panache by Tunji Kasim whilst Katy Stephens as Agrippa gives us good military prim and proper. And Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, Anthony’s loyal court jesterly aide de camp exudes a disarmingly strident guilty innocence in yet another flawed character.

But the true test of the epic credentials of the show is always going to lie in the portrayal of Cleopatra: the play is ultimately about her, and her tempestuous relationship with Antony, and it stands or falls by how effectively the character is played. In all respects Sophie Okonedo rises to the occasion – no, in fact, she reinvents aviation. She takes off, she soars, she zips and zooms, she floats and flutters, she swoops and hovers and she executes aerial acrobatics around the wretched earthlings below her – including Anthony. Okonedo takes us from fun-loving coquette through imperious ruler, by way of delicate wounded lover, to ruthless messenger-soaker and ultimately arrives at deflated queen, defeated but unshakeably proud: her speech after Anthony’s death – I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony – is a wonder to behold and will live with me for a long time. Okonedo’s performance has to be experienced to be believed. So do go and experience it. (Incidentally, if you can’t make it to the National, the show will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on Thursday 6th December).

We have battles, of course, done in epically violent style by Godwin: the play is set in “an imagined present” so the Triumvirate has an Airforce Commander (Lepidus), an Admiral of the Fleet (Octavius Caesar) and And a Five Star General (Antony): clever. And we have clouds of smoke, and flashes and whizz-bangs and assorted automatic weapons and moving barricades (even cleverer) and debris. It’s the true fog of war and we’re right there via direction that wants to make us feel the battle. And knives, of course. Shakespeare’s penchant for including copious sword references in his plays is one of the difficulties that arises when you move to a contemporary setting, so longish vicious-looking knives are the order of the day. (A thought did occur to me that why does Antony stab himself – hope that’s not a spoiler – when he could so easily just use a gun? But it would be churlish to mention that).

Sound comes into its own in the battles – with Sound Designer Christopher Shutt pulling out all the stops with excellent drum-heavy accompaniment from the accomplished band, set high on either side of the stage. Michael Bruce’s music, predominantly menacing and threatening, is excellent and sets the tone and atmosphere of the piece well. Lighting by Tim Lutkin is superb throughout from the lush turquoise shades of Cleopatra’s palace to the kinetic energy of the battles. And Hildegard Bechtler’s set design is like a magnificent interlocking adult playground with doors and steps and magically synchronised moving facades and a pond (for the messenger-ducking of), and a battleship and wonderful floor hatches so that soldiers can pop out like humanoid meerkats. Godwin really works his excellent ensemble hard and gets the best out of them and it’s wonderful to see all the state-of-the-art apparatus of the Olivier theatre utilised in such spectacular fashion.

Then, of course, there’s the snake. If this might be a spoiler for you – stop reading now. This worm of Nilus, this asp, this serpent of Egypt is extracted gingerly from a bag in a basket and is real. Real and alive. Real and alive and wriggling. And long. Very long. With pink rings. There really ought to be a slip of paper in the programme saying that any Theatre Critic who happens to have ophidiophobia better look away now. I do – and I couldn’t. Cleopatra clings onto and holds to her breast, a real live corn snake and I was very pleased not to be in the front row, mesmerised as I was. But that is the nature of epic theatre: it’s colourful, it’s vibrant, it’s alive, it’s mesmerising. Who says theatre isn’t real?

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

Caesar and his assassins are dead. General Mark Antony now rules alongside his fellow defenders of Rome. But at the fringes of a war-torn empire, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Mark Antony have fallen fiercely in love.

In a tragic fight between devotion and duty, obsession becomes a catalyst for war. Politics and passion are violently intertwined in Shakespeare’s gripping tale of power.

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo play the famous fated couple. Simon Godwin (Twelfth Night) directs.

Cast also includes Fisayo Akinade, Alexander Cobb, Hiba Elchikhe, Henry Everett, Gerald Gyimah, Waleed Hammad, Tunji Kasim, Georgia Landers, Nicholas Le Prevost, Tim McMullan, Hannah Morrish, Shazia Nicholls, Gloria Obianyo, Nick Sampson, Katy Stephens, Alan Turkington, Ben Wiggins, Sam Woolf and Sargon Yelda.

Directed by Simon Godwin, set designs by Hildegard Bechtler, costume design by Evie Gurney, lighting designs by Tim Lutkin, music by Michael Bruce, movement direction by Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell, sound design by Christopher Shutt, video design by Luke Halls and fight direction by Kev McCurdy.

Antony & Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Now playing
Running Time: approx. 3hr 30min including interval

Antony and Cleopatra will be broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live on Thursday 6 December.


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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