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.

Network at the National Theatre review *****

Bryan_Cranston_TIFF_2012

Network

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.