Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre review ****

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre Olivier, 11th December 2018

Simon Godwin is a director who has shown he has a bit of a way with the sprawling masterpieces in the dramatic canon in recent years. Especially from the Bard. His recently opened Timon of Athens at the RSC, albeit with the force of nature that is Kathryn Hunter in the lead, seems to have gone down well with the criterati. Previously at the National his Twelfth Night, (OK so that’s not really sprawling but it is stuffed to the gills with characters all wanting time to shine), was a belter, his excellent African inspired RSC Hamlet announced Papa Essiedu to the world, and further back the Tourist can bear witness to the success of his interpretations of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Shaw’s Man and Superman and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, none of which falls into the snappy, straightforward category.

He doesn’t go in for the flashy, but neither is he by any means “conservative”, here being resolutely modern-dress. What I think he does do is think carefully about every single character’s attributes and motivations, and how they fit together, and ensures they have enough “space” to show those attributes and motivations. So even the most far fetched plot seems eminently reasonable. He is at it again with Antony and Cleopatra. You can see that from the string of 4* reviews and the gongs already handed out to the incomparable Sophie Okonedo (who has also I see now bagged a CBE from Her Maj) and the redoubtable Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (who I believe has never been so honoured though he is, as you might expect with that moniker, a distant relative of our beloved Royals).

So you probably don’t need me to tell you this is probably about as good an interpretation of the still flawed A&C as you are ever likely to see. (And you can still see it if you are crafty, and lucky, with the returns that invariably pop up a day or so ahead). Still, redundancy, and/or sluggishness, have not prevented me venturing an opinion in the past so here goes.

The problem with A&C, which was readily apparent in the last, somewhat unconvincing, RSC offering, lies in the flamboyance of the language, the articulation between the “great events” which provide its context and the domestic “at home with the … ” drama of our ageing lovebirds, and the potentially wearing effect of seeing the celeb couple always “showing off” to real, and imagined, audiences. Simon Godwin however has chosen to take these challenges head on.

First up he takes his time. At near 3.5 hours with the interval, across 42 scenes, this does mean there are one or two moments where audience concentration will waver but, with little in the way of cuts (though I am not expert enough to be sure), it means that the historical big picture is unclouded and that all the characters, and not just the power couple, get the chance to show themselves fully. Moreover the lines themselves are given air to breathe and the detail of the domestic exchanges has been rigorously thought out, especially the comic and ironic inflections. Interestingly only the final suicide scenes feel a little rushed with the snake being a bit of an indulgence. We had come this far so I would have been happy to see a more measured take on Tony’s botching and Cleo’s scrupulous choreographing of her own demise.

Obviously it helps that the acting is so strong. And not just from our Sophie and our Ralph. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, especially shaven-headed for the part, is as wonderful as everyone says he is. It helps that Enobarbus is gifted with some of the best lines in the play but even so he brilliantly walks the tightrope of truth and cynicism (central to the whole play) in his capacity as detached observer and explainer of events and as the embodiment of corrupted honour. And he does all of this whilst barely appearing to try. Now I am pretty sure that Mr McMuillan doesn’t want for work, so good an actor is he, but I would like, no I demand, a Richard II and an Iago from him in the relatively near future. And a lead role in a new play at the NT.

The other standout was Fisayo Akinade as Eros, given full rein to ramp up the comedy but also squeezing a ton of emotion out of a character that normally is just a bit part. The smart money already knows this young man is going places. Re-gendering Agrippa definitely worked, especially with Katy Stephens stepping up, I really enjoyed the performances of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Chairman and Iras, more put upon bessies than intimidated hand-maidens, joining Eros and Enobarbus as the conflicted confidantes required to soothe and distract their nominal bosses.

Hannah Morrish did her steely, vulnerability thing again as Octavia. Nicholas Le Provost did his Nicholas Le Provost voice to perfection as a slightly feeble Lepidus, though Tim McMullan’s impersonation might actually improve on the real thing, and Sargon Yelda was an adept Pompey. In fact the only slightly jarring performance came from Tunji Kasim (who is a fine actor make no mistake) whose Octavius seemed overly stilted compared to the naturalistic verse and prose delivery on show elsewhere.

This delivery and the afore-mentioned deliberate pacing also meant that the “performances” of A&C were foregrounded. A&C were the hammed-up actors in their own blockbuster, not just in terms of the ludicrously over the top way they voice their love but also in the way they inject this passion, this risk-taking, into their behaviour in the political arena. Whilst also knowing they are a bit too old and tired for all this display and that it is unlikely to end well. But there egos can’t help themselves. This is also perhaps what has made the story, and especially the “idea” of Cleopatra, so alluring to subsequent generations. (Though as the preposterous flummery of Dutch/British Victorian artist above shows most of these generations preferred their Cleo to look like she had come from Surrey).

Making sense of the “epic” in the tale whilst still permitting us to make a personal, emotional, connection is Mr Godwin’s, and his casts’, smartest achievement here. Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set (note to designers: always use the revolve on the Olivier to avoid the “acres of space” illusion) is sumptuously minimal, or minimally sumptuous, making the delineation between efficient Rome (modern war room with split screen conflict footage), sultry Egypt (Alexandrian palace with complete with pool – only slightly Vegas) and all places in between, including a submarine, clear without being fussy. Once again it does slow down proceedings but, like I say, that gives time to process what we learn from each of the sometimes rapid-fire scenes.

I’ve no doubt that Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench did it better but this was the first time the play properly worked for me. Sophie Okonedo, dolled up in slinky ballgowns (Evie Gurney and the costume team can certainly tailor), breezes through Cleo’s caprice, wit, quick temper, self-obsession, but still manages to make her exposed, needing her soldier-boy especially when he is not there. The bickering is patently borne of adoration and mutual dependence, as well as their individual self-regard.

Ralph Fiennes brings a little of the faded rock star from A Bigger Splash as he dons baggy salvars when relaxing with his lady love. Yet he also, as you might expect, nails military bearing when required. Throughout he does seem troubled, burdened if you will, shoulders hunched, as if he knows how the picture will end. As do we particularly given Simon Godwin’s decision to show us the end at the beginning (and the end, obvs). I had forgotten how many wonderful lines Shakespeare gives Antony to grapple with his failure, his fading from view. Loved it.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes …. ‘fraid not Cleo as this excellent production shows. It will never be the Tourist’s favourite Shakespeare but finally I see the attraction.

Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic review ****

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Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, 4th April 2017

I WILL USE BLOCK CAPITAL FOR EMPHASIS AS WE SLIGHTLY UNHINGED KEYBOARD WARRIORS ARE WONT TO DO.

FOR JUST £12 YOU CAN GO AND SEE ONE OF THE REMAINING PERFORMANCES OF FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

That’s right. All seats for the last week of the run are just £12. Even if you hated Ingmar Bergman and this was a load of tosh that would be a bargain. As it happens you shouldn’t and certainly not this, his most approachable story, and it isn’t. There are some 3* reviews for sure, mostly griping about how it doesn’t match up to the film. OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOESN’T.

Bergman took 6 months to shoot it. After 6 months of planning with art director Anna Asp. It is, in the full version, over 5 hours long. There are over 60 speaking parts and more extras than Brexiters in London. It occupies two worlds, reality and something removed from it. It looks beautiful, that’s why it got it’s Oscars. (I have a mind to persuade LD to spend a year in Uppsala University based solely on the film). There are over 1500 costumes. In short he chucked the entire kitchen sink at it, (there may have been several sinks, I will need to schedule another viewing to check). If Bergman had entered it in the category it would have won Best Picture, instead of the eventual winner in 1984, Terms of Endearment. The film about the making of the film is a great film. The autographical material at the heart of the film was enough for Bergman to spawn further work on film and TV.

It is a fairy tale of sorts, but with some real world joy and cruelty. It is mythic in scope, but at its centre are two families. It nods, sometimes vigorously, to Ibsen, Strindberg and Shakespeare. It might be Oedipal. It skewers religion. It sticks two fingers up to authority. In short there is an awful lot going on her. And all within the confines of a conventional Victorian melodrama (sort of). It’s a Top 100 film, certainly, Top 20 probably, and definitely a Top 10 foreign language film for me (though these lists don’t actually exist so beware the hyperbole).

It was never going to be fully captured on stage. Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is not the first time a dramatist has tried to capture Bergman on the stage, and it won’t be the last. Our friend Ivo van Hove has a particular penchant for the Bergman adaptation (After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***). It isn’t easy. I wonder if the best director of Bergman on stage might have been Ingmar Bergman, theatre director (I don’t know if he ever put his own work on stage).

Anyway wisely it seems to me, Matthew Warchus in commissioning the project, Mr Beresford in adapting this sublime material and Max Webster as director have plotted a course through “adult fairy tale” and family saga, and not got too hung up on all the rest. If you just accept the production for what it is I believe you will be, if not maybe transfixed, at least fully engaged by the essentially simple story.

Tom Pye’s set elegantly conjures up the Ekdahl apartment in the theatre, all crimson, before shrinking and transforming into the monochrome “prison” of the Bishop’s palace in the second half. There is constant movement, and a lot of scene changes, but this  brings the required vibrancy and energy to proceedings. The magic works, in a kind of pantomime-ish way. The plot is fleshed out by announcements side-stage which accompany the set-piece meals. Dialogue, where it is not lifted moreorless intact from the film, is snappy and to the point. Mr Beresford has found some real humour. The characters are only really sketched out but no matter, as there is enough to support plot, and the sketches are balanced across the key roles.

Of course this approach leaves a lot off the table. Penelope Wilton’s Helena might have stepped in from a Wildean comedy, Michael Pennington’s Isaak from a certain Shakespeare play, Sargon Yelda’s Oscar is a little earnest (especially as ghost) and it is hard to understand why Catherine’s Walker’s Emilie would marry Bishop Edvard. Kevin Doyle, for my money (I paid more than £12 remember), actually gets more into, and out of, Vergerus, than the rest of the cast, conveying something of his torment. The infidelities of Jonathan Slinger’s Gustav Adolf are played for laughs, though he got applause when he let rip into the Bishop, and Thomas Arnold as Carl and Karina Fernandez as Lydia are morose and not much else. You will need to resist the urge to boo and hiss Lolita Chakrabarti and Annie Firbank’s when they morph into the Vergerus ladies. Gloria Obianyo gets a bit of the requisite strangeness out of Ismael.

I have to say though that young Misha Handley, who was Alexander at my showing, was superb, from his very first solo scene in front of the curtains. It is easily enough to praise “child” actors, though it often comes across as patronising. I can’t tell you if his three colleagues are as good, but if they are then they must all keep up with drama school. OK so the lines flowed naturally from the drama but I couldn’t see the acting here. This could never be a world seen through his eyes alone, how would that be possible without close-ups and POV shots, but the production and his performance still made it feel as if it was, when the action really kicked in, anchored in his perspective.

So ignore the reviews, relax and be carried away by this story of good and evil. Then see the film, long version, and realise what was, not missing, but different. The play is still well over 3 hours, though with a couple of intervals, and especially in the second and third “acts” when things hot up, it never feels like it. It’s resolutely not a “memory” play, and it can’t replicate the camera’s eye. But it is enjoyable and if you go in with the right attitude, you will be sumptuously entertained. It certainly delivers on more of its promise than other recent productions at the Old Vic.

P.S. I see Stephen Beresford comes from Dartmouth. Adding further to my list of “important people from South Devon”.