Film review | Antony and Cleopatra

Directed by Simon Godwin for the National Theatre and starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as William Shakespeare’s doomed cross-continental lovers, this latest take on the timeless tragedy was beamed live at Spazju Kreattiv on December 6

When passion means doom: Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra
When passion means doom: Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as Antony and Cleopatra

While it may not have the archetypal purity of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra certainly stands as an iconic love story in its own right, combining the legendary playwright’s political aptitude when depicting the power struggles of the Roman world along with his matchless skill in depicting unravelling human psychology. It is perhaps this essential hybridity of the play’s make-up that deflates some of its potential power and hold over our imagination… neither an all-out romantic tragedy like, in fact, Romeo and Juliet, nor a politically incisive work like his previous Roman play, Julius Caesar, this story of star-crossed lovers will always feel like something of a straddling compromise.

It is in attempting to make this twain of audience expectation meet that contemporary theatrical directors -- such as the currently under-consideration Simon Godwin -- face a challenging proposition, and Godwin’s own take on the timeless work, beamed live from the National Theatre in London to Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on December 6 certainly made a powerful hack at it, with an ambitious show that just about threatened to collapse under it own weight.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Roman rule is split among three men - Octavian (Tunji Kasim), Lepidus (Nicholas Le Prevost) and Antony (Ralph Fiennes). The latter, however, is more interested in pursuing a love affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo), and neglects both his wife back home and -- even more damnably to the Roman establishment -- matters of state. When his refusal to send aid during a recent mission against Roman troublemaker Pompey (Sargon Yelda) stokes the ire of Octavian -- Julius Caesar’s nephew and heir apparent to Roman leadership -- the situation escalates just enough for Antony to finally sit up and take notice. Agreeing to a marriage of convenience to Octavian’s sister Octavia (Hannah Morrish), Antony appears to be on his way towards establishing a truce between the establishment. But his heart continues to beat for Cleopatra, who is none too ready to let him slip through her fingers.

This is a lavish and charged production, updated to a contemporary setting and brought to imposing life by Godwin and his team -- with rotating set design by Hildegard Bechtler and impeccably judged costume work by Evie Gurney, whose process we were given a look into on Thursday thanks to an accompanying mini-documentary. Contrast between Egypt and Rome is established with a clear-eyed confidence: the showy opulence of the Oriental court represented through serpentine pools and limestone-hewn staircases, with Rome established as a high-tech military superpower employing satellite imagery and decorating its offices with appropriated (read: looted) African icons.

Okonedo’s Cleopatra -- diminutive but fiery, brattish but determined, is an occult diva; Gurney admitted to Beyonce’s iconic yellow dress from the ‘Lemonade’ video being a key inspiration, while a black cape for a blacker moment comes embroidered with insects: an image evoking the Egyptian queen’s iconography and predilection towards the darker side of the natural world.

In short, this is clearly an elaborately thought-out and curated production of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, though one would have hoped that more attention was dedicated to working out the character dynamics over ensuing it all looks and feels like a blockbuster spectacle. Fiennes and Okonedo certainly command attention, with Fiennes in particular exhibiting the thwarted energy of the Roman powerhouse in his twilight years; comfortable to retire in Oriental garb but visibly stiff when forced to don the military, imperial threads of Roman rule. Okonedo is also to be commended for short-circuiting some of the limitations of her role, as-written (while certainly one of the Bard’s most memorable female roles, her nature as a femme fatale with a penchant for the superstitious and impulsive can grate nowadays). The Hotel Rwanda/Doctor Who actress weaves from a Cleopatra who oversees a coven of helpers -- Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) and Iras (Georgia Landers) -- with a wry smile, confident that she has her beloved Antony wrapped around her little finger, to an enraged and ultimately defeated monarch that never succumbs to compromise.

However, the roles of the supporting players feel bereft of attention, with Tim McMullan’s Enobarbus in particular -- an important liminal character with some of the play’s most memorable lines -- feeling like a missed opportunity; a sleazy hanger-on when he should be intelligent trickster of the piece.

Along with Tunji Kasim’s brash but ultimately hollow representation of the nervy and calculated Octavian, the approach taken lends an unfortunate hint of the shallow and rushed to a production that has clearly set its mind on standing out in every way possible.

The verdict

Encumbered by a sizeable running time and draining some emotional intimacy by dint of its blockbuster aspirations, Simon Godwin’s production nonetheless remains a charged, ambitious show -- bringing into focus the full institutional and diplomatic ramifications of Antony and Cleopatra’s taboo-smashing love affair, as well as its more universally recognisable emotional resonances.

Two additional encore (non-live) performances of Antony and Cleopatra will be shown at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta: January 10 (19:30) and February 3 (18:00)