As we ease into an impromptu season of watching live theater captured on video, it’s helpful to remember that there are challenges of scale. This is especially true in the case of webcasts from the Olivier Theatre in London; vast and unforgiving of the human voice, it requires lungs of steel to fill the space with any character at all. And if your character is the Queen of Egypt, well, that steel had better be a foot thick.
The National Theatre’s latest addition to their live collection attempts to capture the sweep of one of the longest and most meandering yet most spectacular of Shakespeare’s historical plays. Simon Godwin (of Shakespeare Theatre Company fame) has assembled a well-tuned cast, with Ralph Fiennes anchoring the action as Mark Antony. He is by no means the main attraction here, however, as the production boasts an unforgettable turn by Sophie Okonedo in the indelibly performed, epically scaled role of Cleopatra.
Having established her incredible chops as a performer, Okonedo is a marvel to behold. It is almost jarring to find her epic persona reduced microscopically to the confines of your laptop. She rules the world, bursting with petulance and wily intrigues. In addition to Fiennes and Okonedo, you will see one of NT’s stronger casts assembled, and it’s made all the more impressive due to their sheer numbers. I have been disappointed in years past to see touring productions touting brilliant leads but featuring lackluster supporting players. That’s not the case here—a slick, determined Tunji Kasim plays the role of (Octavian) Caesar, and Nicholas Le Prevost’s Lepidus successfully combines the steady, businesslike carriage of a general with the wobbliness of a blind drunk.
The scenes in Cleopatra’s quarters are lively with intrigue, and Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers make a formidable team as Cleopatra’s ladies in waiting, Charmian and Iras. Sargon Yelda, meanwhile, exudes the overconfidence of many a modern-day pirate with his Pompey, while Tim McMullan’s turn as Enobarbus, Antony’s wavering aide-de-camp, is truly memorable, especially in his final moments of regret and repentance. Another heart-stopping moment comes when Eros—played brilliantly by Fisayo Akinade—poignantly denies Antony’s request to run him through, choosing suicide rather than aiding in his master’s death.
Michael Bruce’s music is performed live by Magnus Mehta’s ensemble, and adds a lively, Mediterranean flair to the action. Luke Hall’s video projections take us to the location in a heartbeat. The Olivier boasts a turntable, and has the capacity to raise entire landscapes as the occasion calls for it, and Hildegard Bechtler’s set design definitely takes advantage. The set manages the impressive feat of taking you from a boardroom to Pompey’s battleship to the (ingeniously mobile) cityscapes of a battle-scarred downtown, where soldiers engage in house-to-house assaults.
The modern setting, evocative of the Iraq War, manages the feat of bringing the frustrations of Antony’s wars into a context much closer to home. And Evie Gurvey’s costumes—from the high couture of Cleopatra’s gorgeous ensembles to the trim of elite military and civilian wear—are likewise a feast for the eyes. The wide, winding fabric used to elevate Antony for his parting visit with Cleopatra creates an indelible image, and the stage picture works at many levels, evoking both a loving embrace and a web in which the characters are trapped.
You’ve got some fine viewing ahead—and the National Theatre makes sure to ease you into and through the action with behind-the-scenes interviews, both on their website and embedded in the webcast itself. However, if you’re going to treat yourself to some of England’s finest theatre, think about casting to one of the larger flat screens in your home. Trust me, it will make all the difference.
Running Time: 3 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission (and interviews).
Antony and Cleopatra streams on YouTube until 2 pm DC time Thursday, May 14, 2020.
Antony and Cleopatra is part of NT at Home. National Theatre at Home provides access to online content to help serve audiences in their homes. During this unprecedented time, which has seen the closure of theaters, cinemas, and schools, audiences around the world can stream NT Live productions for free via YouTube every Thursday, and each show will then be available on demand for seven days. Alongside the streamed productions, National Theatre at Home will also feature accompanying interactive content, such as Q&As with cast and creative teams and post-stream talks.
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