THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
“She barged down the Nile and sank” was how the New York Times famously reviewed Tallulah Bankhead’s ill-fated attempt at the Egyptian temptress back in 1937. It’s a difficult play to get right, 42 scenes and too many subplots, here running nearly three and a half hours and the two leads have always been tricky to cast. For this reason, it was a daunting prospect live, but the glory of these NT Live livestreams is that you can dip your toe in and escape if you really must.
No need to do that here though, because Simon Goodwin’s crisp, clear, direction gives it all a much-needed momentum. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo have come to these roles in their prime and they couldn’t be better. Both deservedly won the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2018 and this is a great opportunity to catch up/revisit.
General Mark Anthony is now running the empire as part of an unsteady triumvirate with Caesar and Lepidus and the play explores Antony’s personal struggle between devotion and duty as a late life passion overwhelms him (the “strumpet’s fool”). It ends up being a catalyst for war.
Fiennes is now so expert at delineating the complexity of these larger than life classical roles. In the Roman scenes we witness his authority and cunning but in the Alexandria scenes we glimpse the doubt and vulnerability beneath. It really is mid-life crisis stuff, trying to prove he’s not past his prime. He casually has a messenger flogged for kissing Cleopatra’s hand, for example. When Caesar offers him his own sister Octavia for a political marriage, Antony’s effortful attempts at wooing her come across as awkward and middle aged, yet with Cleopatra he’s an ardent young lover.
Goodwin’s direction is masterful in how it blends these intimate moments with the epic sweep of the broader political story, and designer Hildegarde Bechtler’s employs the full Olivier Theatre toybox (including that big revolve) to great results. Her modern dress designs beautifully contrast the sensuous golden heat of Egypt with the coldness of bleak Roman conference rooms’ war gaming satellite technology.
What you’ll take away from this production though is Sophie Okonedo totally owning this part for a modern audience. Dressed like a Soul Diva in Evie Gurney’s stunningly opulent couture gowns, you can’t take your eyes off her. She also totally nails that mixture of intelligent, regal, haughtiness one minute with school-girl bitchiness and playfulness the next. She has slabs of verse to wade through and yet manages to keep it all light.
The play runs out of steam after Antony’s death and there is a thankless long scene at the end where Cleopatra bemoans her fate. For an actor it’s like trying to cross a ravine after a long hike. The arrival of the asp (here a real one) comes as a bit of a welcome relief.
The large supporting cast are all top-notch with Fisayo Akinade particularly touching as Eros (Antony’s attendant) and Katy Stephens stealing scenes as Caesar’s right hand (wo)man Agrippa.