The National has had a patchy period when it comes to Shakespeare. The theatre’s community-focused musical adaptation of Pericles met with widespread acclaim in August. Earlier this year, artistic director Rufus Norris’ production of Macbeth was widely ridiculed. And before that, NT regular Simon Godwin’s gender-swapped staging of Twelfth Night divided the critics.
Now it’s having another go. Godwin, who jets off to work in the US next year, returns for now to direct a crack cast in Antony and Cleopatra in the Olivier. Multi-award-winning star of screen and stage Ralph Fiennes plays the titular Roman general, while Sophie Okonedo, who most recently popped up in last year’s West End run of Edward Albee’s The Goat, plays his ethereal Egyptian lover.
But does this Shakespeare set the Olivier alight? Do Fiennes and Okonedo conquer all as the world collapses around them? Do the critics cavort with them in Ancient Egypt, or are they left as cold as Rome’s marble statues?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
Shakespeare’s expansive Roman tragedy has been staged twice before in the Olivier – a legendary production with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in 1987, and a disappointing one with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren in 1998. Does Godwin’s modern-dress version make it two hits from three?
Yep, it certainly does. “This is one of Shakespeare’s most sprawling plays, as messy as it’s grand, but here it feels like both an opulent slice of Roman history and an intimate tragedy,” praises Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “Godwin picks a nimble path through the thorny plot and gives a nice contemporary twist to its story of East-meets-West.”
“The great merit of Simon Godwin’s fast-moving, modern dress and hugely intelligent production in the vast space of the Olivier, is its extreme lucidity,” cheers Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★). “A lot goes on, but we always understand its meaning and its emotional impact.”
“Godwin’s modern-dress assay on Shakespeare’s knotty drama is thrilling, humane and impeccably lucid,” writes Sam Marlowe (The Stage, ★★★★), while Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) calls it “a penetrating and considered account of a complex, twisty play.”
Although there are a few gripes over the evening’s pacing and the inevitable awkwardness of 42 separate scenes, most critics reckon Godwin has triumphed over a tricky tragedy. There’s a lot of love for his radical framing device: starting with the suicidal finale, and presenting the whole thing as one long flashback.
“There will always be cooler directors than Simon Godwin, and most of them would have had a nervous breakdown tackling Antony and Cleopatra,” points out Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), while Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) observes how Godwin “proves yet again that he combines a contemporary eye with a fastidious ear for Shakespeare’s language”.
It’s only Matt Trueman (Variety) who reckons Godwin ultimately falls foul of the play’s problems. “Godwin never unlocks a language to make something impactful of the play’s plague of suicides,” he writes. “Instead, his staging unravels in a procession of burst bloodbags and corpses, each death a little less impressive than the last, that never keys into the senseless poetry of it all or the headlessness of self-destruction.”
“It’s a long evening,” reasons Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), “but an increasingly rewarding one.”
There’s considerable star wattage powering proceedings here. Two Oscar-nominated actors, in two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated roles, slipping into the shoes of a series of famous duos to have played the parts before them – Hopkins and Dench, Rickman and Mirren, Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Bates and Frances De La Tour, Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter…
According to most critics, Fiennes and Okonedo are more than up to the challenge: “These are fine performances, rich in detail, full of passion’s tremulous desire, yet movingly tempered by the rue of middle age,” writes Marlowe.
“Dressed like a diva from the golden age of Hollywood, Okonedo revels in Cleopatra’s contradictory nature, capturing her wit and vanity, her disarming mix of regal pride and playful charm,” says Hitchings. “When she flounces she’s earthy, and when she’s at her most fiery she retains a curious lightness — her paradoxical quality dazzling all around her.”
“It is a performance of immense detail and subtlety, vocally enticing but also physically strong, full of little shrugs of the shoulder and raised eyebrows,” gushes Crompton. “She is also extremely funny; you can see why men fall under her spell.”
Her Cleopatra is “fiery, funny, mercurial” according to Billington, “smart and potent, physically and mentally powerful” according to Lukowski, and “deliciously impossible: a kitten one minute, a tiger the next, and a sensual, wily fox at all times” according to Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★).
“She twists Cleopatra’s famous histrionics into subtle shapes that make sense both when she’s being very funny, and later very sad,” analyses Harriet Fitch Little (Financial Times, ★★★★★). “A bored queen in the first half, she casts emotions on and off like so many sparkling costume changes. Later, after Mark Antony marries Caesar’s sister and Cleopatra senses her control slipping, the theatrics become a necessary way of keeping up appearances.”
Fiennes, on the other hand, is “a boozy old lion” for Lukowski, “an old hippie on holiday” for Trueman, and for Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★), he’s “a proper stage prizefighter.”
“Fiennes combines the world-weariness of a man past his prime, who knows he should be somewhere else ruling, rather than mucking around with a beautiful woman,” writes Crompton. “As his performance progresses, and he is called back to Rome, to his duty, he more and more resembles a wounded bull, all hunched shoulders and powder-keg passion kept just about in check.”
“Fiennes’s performance, by its last stages, has attained an almost possessed inspiration that blends absolute lucidity of speech rhythm with flights of poetry,” lauds Tom Birchenough (The Arts Desk, ★★★★). It is, he says, a “tour de force”.
It’s only Cavendish that finds fault with Fiennes. “Fiennes doesn’t fully convince as having let his hair down away from the cares of the Roman state,” he writes. “I yearned for a bit more va-va-voom from the actor who gave us Voldemort.”
Most critics agree with Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★), though. Fiennes and Okonedo are “simply terrific.”
Godwin gets a thumbs up for his intelligent direction, then, and there’s two more for his two leads. But how about Hildegard Bechtler’s set? Does this present-day production conjure up the opulence of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome?
“Bechtler’s stage design provides powerful bones,” writes Fitch Little. “Her Egypt looks like a boutique hotel, all beautiful tiling and plunge pools. Rome’s marble boardrooms feature museum-style displays of African tribal statuary, signalling both the empire’s desire to tame the exotic “other” and its prioritising of cool rationalism.”
“The set is intricate and immense,” agrees Treneman. “In Egypt, there are glimmering pools and archways. In Italy, the war command room is a marble palace with a huge screen split into battle scenes.”
“She even conjures a submarine, a great steel hulk rising out of the Olivier floor, and an ancient Middle Eastern city for the climactic battle, the soldiers rushing like street fighters between the parapets (terrific movement direction from Jonathan Goddard and Shelley Maxwell),” adds Crompton.
“That’s quite a lot of gadgetry, but it never risks stealing the show,” reassures Birchenough. “For there’s supreme lucidity at the heart of this Antony and Cleopatra, its relish for textual richness counterpointed by some nice small-scale comedy.”
Oh, and last but not least, watch out for the reptilian star that eventually does for Okonedo’s Cleopatra – “a very impressive, very real live snake”, reports Marlowe.
Four stars in the Guardian, The Stage, the Telegraph, the Independent, Time Out and a host of others, plus a trio of five-star ratings from the Times, the FT and WhatsOnStage.
After the debacle of Macbeth, the Olivier has a Shakespeare it can be proud of, thanks to the trusty, insightful hands of Simon Godwin, the remarkable vision of Hildegard Bechtler, and two cracking performances from Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. Rufus Norris can breathe a big sigh of relief.