ANTONY & CLEOPATRA
Director: Simon Godwin
Screenwriter: William Shakespeare
Nicholas Le Prevost
Runtime: 220 mins., including interval
Australian release date: 2 February 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 22 January 2019.
Gracing our screens in Australia in early February, beamed directly (well, almost) from the stage of The National Theatre in London, is Simon Godwin’s directorial triumph, Antony & Cleopatra, the tragic romance of a couple caught up in a world of love, empire and war. This is a fine modern rendering of Shakespeare’s tragedy that criss-crosses from Alexandria to Rome and back again.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire is now ruled by General Mark Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and his fellow ‘triumvirs’ (three joint leaders), Octavius (Tunji Kasim) and Lepidus (Nicholas Le Prevost). Antony, however, has fallen madly in love with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) and is therefore ignoring his duties in Rome, spending most of his time locked in lustful embrace with Cleopatra in Alexandria, much to the concern of his fellow rulers on the other side of the Mediterranean. Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus (Tim McMullen) watches on as the Queen toys with Antony’s emotions, never quite believing that she is as much in love with Antony as he very obviously is with her. When Antony is summoned back to Rome by a peeved Octavius, he agrees to marry Octavius’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish) as a way of settling their grievances. Cleopatra is enraged when news of the nuptials reaches her, but Antony returns to Alexandria to soothe her, thinking that his troubles in Rome are over. Octavius, on the other hand, is playing things his own way back in Italy, and his double-dealing sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to war between Rome and Egypt. The love-struck Antony is no longer the great general he once was, though, and he badly plans his battle moves, losing to Octavius’s forces not once but twice. Enraged, he denounces Cleopatra, swearing to kill her, but she sends word to him that she has killed herself, hoping that he will speed to her side where she can say “Just joking” and all will be forgiven. Her plan backfires, however, because the grief-stricken Roman attempts suicide for real, unable to face life without her, and dies in her arms. Imprisoned by Octavius, Cleopatra puts a poisonous asp to her breast, and as she dies, imagines that she will be reunited with Antony in the afterlife.
Fiennes and Okonedo are dazzling as the star-crossed lovers, their fiery performances eclipsing the other highly talented members of the cast, of which there are many (Tim McMullan is a standout). Fiennes convinces as the battle-hardened warrior who is brought to his knees by the power of his love for this exotic woman, the likes of whom he has never encountered before. Okonedo is utterly alluring as the capricious Cleopatra, who twists Antony around her little finger and always manages to leave a shadow of doubt in the audience’s mind about the authenticity of her love for him. The production design is magnificent and the sets opulent, particularly Cleopatra’s pleasure palace, water-feature and all. The play’s contemporary setting has enabled the costume designer, Evie Gurney, to go to town with Cleopatra’s gowns, imagining her as a modern-day femme fatale in the vein of a Beyoncé or a Princess Diana, and the resulting couture costumes are rich and sumptuous. If there’s a fault with Antony & Cleopatra, it doesn’t lie with Simon Godwin’s superb production but rather with the play itself – it is very, very long. Did the great writer not know that, some 412 years after it was written, audiences would have shortened attention spans? Be that as it may, those who put away their mobile phones and stick with it will be amply rewarded.