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Antony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo review at the National Theatre – ‘thrilling and lucid’

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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It’s a twilight romance wrapped in a bloody fist, and an epic tragedy of avarice, exploitation and thirst for power. Simon Godwin’s modern-dress assay on Shakespeare’s knotty drama is thrilling, humane and impeccably lucid, set alight by the firepower of two stars – Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – in the title roles.

These are fine performances, rich in detail, full of passion’s tremulous desire, yet movingly tempered by the rue of middle age. For every grand declaration, there’s an incidence of absurdity of which these mature lovers are only too aware. That duality extends beyond the bedroom to the council chamber and the battlefield, where both the Egyptian queen and the Roman soldier-statesman feel their potency painfully wane. Fierce creatures still baring teeth and claws that are beginning to blunt, they are made for each other; there’s a pang in our foreknowledge that they can never grow magnificently old together.

Underlining that point, Godwin’s production begins with a prologue foreshadowing the final scene, Okonedo’s Cleopatra stretched out lifeless on her monument. It’s swept aside by the giddy hedonism of her Alexandria court, an ornate aquamarine riad in Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant design.

Here, Okonedo, in silken gowns, looks like both a classical and a Hollywood goddess, with the soul of a formidable diva. Fiennes, in wide linen trousers and open, patterned shirt, is not unlike a well-heeled tourist. The holiday mood is abruptly swept aside on the return to Rome, with its sharp suits and Gucci-ish loafers, its cool marble and tasteful displays of art – masks and sculptural figures, no doubt plundered from conquered countries.

Alongside ravening imperialist appetite, there’s a flavour of modern Middle Eastern conflicts, summoned by video imagery of violent clashes and a climax of bombed-out streets and mortar blasts. Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus is something of a pussy-grabbing lech, and there’s more than a whiff of racism, too, with Katy Stephens’ tough-talking, high-heeled Agrippa spitting contempt at Antony’s attraction to Cleopatra and Egypt’s “tawny front”.

It’s all very involving, even if the pace rather slackens just as the military action hots up. There’s strong support from Nicholas Le Prevost as a world-weary Lepidus, Tunji Kasim’s sinewy, watchful Caesar and Sargon Yelda’s flamboyant Pompey, with Fisayo Akinade scene-stealingly affecting as an ill-fated messenger. But it’s the lovers who enthral.

Okonedo is magnificent, a kitten one moment, a tigress the next, sensual, witty and ferocious. Fiennes’ Antony, at his booziest and most raddled, growls “Come on, my queen, there’s sap in’t yet”, his eyes somewhat unfocused but still roguish. The grotesque farce of their final moments is horribly sad (and, incidentally, features a very impressive, very real live snake).

Compassionate, politically astute and psychologically perceptive.

Sophie Okonedo: ‘Performing eight times a week is frightening’

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Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes blaze and break your heart in an impeccably lucid production