By: May. 04, 2020
Sophie Okenado and Ralph Fiennes in the National Theatre Live production of Antony and Cleopatra.
Photo by Jason Bell.

There is much to admire in this streamed production of one of Shakespeare's lesser-performed but highly dramatic play. It isn't a work with many famous lines - though it has some - but Antony & Cleopatra makes up for it with action.

One of the memorable aspects of the production is the appearance of Ralph Fiennes, who you may not gave seen in person. Then there is the naturally flowing, palpable passion between him and Sophie Okonedo as the Cleopatra.

We enjoy that passion, even as we know it is doomed, leading to war.

Then there are the movable sets, and such moments as the dying Antony is hoisted up to a parapet to greet his beloved for the last time.

The main drawback in my opinion is the choice of director Simon Godwin, now artistic director the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, to use modern dress. This is particularly peculiar when Antony in one scene looks like a beach comber.

Even when dressed in a suit or military garb, Fiennes's Antony is different than one might have seen in other productions. Though a general and joint ruler of the Roman Empire, he is overweight, flaccid. His brow is drawn, and he is wearing a beard - not a common sight in Rome. He is still boozing, though no longer a womanizer.

The other actors wear either military costume or suits; sometimes the women wear pants. In slinky, long dresses, Okonedo is the closest to what we might expect from Egypt's queen.

While the two leads play off one another wonderfully, Okonedo might be the more evocative - imperious, jealous, possessive, and fascinating to men in her "infinite variety."

Fiennes, who has been powerful in such films as The English Patient and Wuthering Heights, has the greatest impact when he is nearing the end of his life.

There are a few other jarring things viewers should be aware of: the graphic nature of the fighting and the copious blood when Antony dispatches himself. And then there's that live snake (why that choice, I don't know, but I had to look away.) with whom Cleopatra and her handmaidens commit suicide.

Interestingly, the physical relationship between the two leads is not played up.

In contrast to the simmering leads, Tunji Kasim plays an understated Octavian, the new Caesar.

As portrayed by Shakespeare, both Antony and Cleopatra are people who command loyalty. Enobarbus (Tim McMullan) and Eros (Fisayo Anade) swear it to Antony, while Georgia Landers and Gloria Obianyo are moving as Cleopatra's handmaidens.

For those used to watching plays and operas online or on TV, the adjustment may not be that difficult. I found the small screen on my laptop limiting, but not too troubling. Certainly, in this time of corona, we're all getting used to it.

Antony & Cleopatra is broadcast as part of National Theatre at Home, the National Theatre's new initiative to screen a selection of much-loved National Theatre Live productions over the next two months on YouTube.

The play will be shown on the National Theatre's YouTube channel on Thursday, May 7, 7 p.m. EST, as part of National Theatre at Home. It will then be available on demand for seven days.

If your knowledge of the play is only general you might also want to read the script ahead of time or have it at hand. There are many characters in small roles.

National Theatre Live turned ten years old in June 2019. For more information, click here.

For more information on screenings and to sign up to the NT Live Newsletter, click here.

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