Antony & Cleopatra

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, UK, National Theatre Live,  2018. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo, Tim McMullen, Tunji Kasim, Nicholas le Prevost, Hannah Morrish, Sargon Yelda, Fisayo Akinade, Gloria Obianyo, Georgia Lenders. Directed by Simon Godwin. No rating available.

This is the film version of a performance of Antony and Cleopatra by the National Theatre, London.

Ralph Fiennes plays Antony, with great power and passion, with more than a touch of madness and declining, his decline and fall,  after his experiences with Caesar, the aftermath of his assassination, the battle against the assassins, Philippi, war in Egypt and his infatuation with Cleopatra.

Sophie Okenado plays Cleopatra, sometimes wild-eyed, wild-haired, caught up in passion, a woman of moods and whims, dependent on her two maids, infatuated with Antony.

Much of the impact of the play will depend on how convincing the audience finds Sophie Okenado and her interpretation of Cleopatra – a contrast to more a intensely interior personal passion to the range of moods here. It is interesting to speculate about the power of Shakespeare’s words and how strong they are in comparison with the actress’s performance.

The setting is a rather lavish, palace aspects for Egypt, a water pool (in which some of the characters find themselves at times), a contrast with the austerity of the Roman headquarters (and, since this is meant to be a contemporary interpretation of the play, although it is not quite necessary in such detail as seen here with screens coming down, filmed battle sequences). At times, the Roman leaders are at sea, the discussions on stage as if on the deck of a contemporary submarine.

Which sometimes means that the politics are more interesting than the love and passion. This is the history of the long aftermath following the death of Julius Caesar, the beginnings of Empire, the various ambitions of the players in the time of Caesar and in the next-generation. At the head of this next-generation is Octavius, who will become Caesar Augustus – played, with an American style accent, by Tunji Kasim. There is also the son of Pompey who was part of the triumvirate with Caesar. There is also the older general, Lepidus.

There are scenes in Rome, away from Cleopatra, where the future of Rome is being discussed, where there is initial collaboration, a turning against Pompey, and hostilities set up between Octavius and Antony despite their initial camaraderie.

On his return to Egypt and to Cleopatra, Antony’s judgement and military instincts seem to collapse, his being willing to fight Octavius at sea, rely on Cleopatra ships, which are not so reliable, while his strength is in fighting on land. He has many loyal followers, especially Enobarbus (Tim McMullen). And, while Antony has some victories, he is doomed, urging his followers to go over to Octavius.

Dramatically, it would seem that Shakespeare’s play should end with the rather prolonged death scene for Antony, to which Ralph Fiennes devotes an enormous amount of energy. But Cleopatra has her final moments, the news about Antony, her pretending that she is dead and his coming to find her, Octavius wanting to take her to Rome in defeat – and, then, the scene with the asp, the death of her maids, and the thwarting of Octavius’s plans.

The stagecraft and the costumes are certainly well worth seeing, the musical background with tones of the Middle East  - and it can be noted that the large cast is made up of a wide variety of actors of different ethnic backgrounds

Charlton Heston made a film version in 1972, playing with Hildegard Neill. Criticised at the time, it has not been much seen since but would be a very interesting comparison performance. In the meantime, this is the 21st-century opportunity to see Shakespeare’s play.

Sharmill.                                      Released January 26th.

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.