No snakes were harmed in the making of this play

Sally Minogue and Stefania Ciocia puzzle over their disappointment with an acclaimed production of Antony and Cleopatra.

We were both looking forward to this. The stars, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo had just won the Evening Standard best actor and best actress awards for their performances as the ageing lovers. We might have blenched slightly when we discovered that the play had a three-and-a-half-hour running time; so Sally took sandwiches, Stefania took fig rolls. We settled in our seats, ready to enjoy ourselves.

And at once it went wrong: a tableau of Cleopatra’s dead body (as if we didn’t all know how it ends) with the healing words that characteristically close a Shakespearean tragedy being intoned at its opening. Shakespeare knew a bit about constructing plays: he never starts at the end, and he never starts with a big moment. His opening has two followers of Antony’s discussing their great general’s decline into a ‘dotage’ (it is the fourth word of the play), misled, as they unproblematically see it, by ‘a tawny front’ and ‘a gipsy’s lust’. Theirs is our first account of Cleopatra just as it is our first account of Antony, in a play which pivots on a fine awareness of the misuse of language. Philo’s misogynistic and racist language is a Roman soldier’s deliberate put-down of a woman considerably more powerful than he is. This is a play all about how people are seen, mis-seen, act themselves out to others, and – occasionally – truly see themselves. It has theatricality at its centre, and much of the drama it presents, especially the central one between its two principals, is stagy and overblown, like their language. But also at the play’s centre is the true and proper human drama and tragedy behind that. It is vital to a good production that it catches that private human fragility behind the bombast, otherwise these characters can’t matter to us.

It’s a difficult task, certainly. There’s plenty of evidence in the play to support Philo’s view of Cleopatra, as there is to support the view of Antony as misled by his ‘dotage’ into a folie à deux. The play even contains its own self-referential warning, when Cleopatra, close to the play’s and her own end, has a sudden understanding that hers and Antony’s story could be turned into a farce:

The quick comedians

Extemporally will stage us … Antony

Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore. (Act 5, Sc. 2)

But in this production it is a drunken, uncontrolled Antony we have seen; and while there’s no hint of the boy actor in this sensual Cleopatra, there’s plenty of ‘the posture of a whore’. Yet these two have been – are – magnificent figures in their own right. Cleopatra is a queen, controlling a country and a culture, and ready still to lead her own fighting fleet; Antony is a Roman general, with a history of great deeds, yes, but also still engaged in major conflicts as both strategist and leader of men on the field of war. That we are seeing them in decline should only make their tragedy more poignant. But the play must also give us more than a glimpse of their greatness. It can’t just be reported, as it is by Philo in that same opening speech, reminding us of the martial power Antony once had: ‘his goodly eyes … have glowed like plated Mars’, ‘his captain’s heart … in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast’. For as the play quickly teaches us, the report of others is shifting and contradictory; it can’t be relied on. What we have to do as an audience (and a production should enable that) is to weigh the different reports and uses of language within the historical and dramatic context from which they emanate.

The most striking tribute to Cleopatra comes early on in the play (Act 2. Sc 2) from the Roman Enobarbus (his language utterly at odds with that of his fellow soldier Philo). In a description prefaced by the incantatory ‘I will tell you’, Enobarbus (Tim McMullan) weaves an image which not only captivates the listener, but also demonstrates how and why Antony was captivated. It is still the woman who is conjured up (‘For her own person, it beggar’d all description’). But underlying that is the ruler Cleopatra, who has so commanded attention that ‘Antony, enthron’d i’ the marketplace, did sit alone, Whistling to the air’. Key to her portrait in the play that she is both – ruler and woman, ruler as a woman. No wonder she is a threat to Rome, made visible in her conquering of their great general Antony, not through war but love.

Sadly, there was little sense of Cleopatra’s power as queen in this production, unless you count costumes based on Beyonce. The whole of the pre-play film for the Live Relay concentrated on clothes. And there was a telling comment about the rehearsal approach: what Simon Godwin the director begins with is the actors putting Shakespeare’s speeches into their own words. Ok, sounds good – a way for actors to get inside the roles. But in a play where the poetry is doing so much of the work, this is to reduce rather than to enhance. That distinction between self-aggrandisement and real feeling, precisely outlined in the poetry, could easily be lost. In the end, this production seemed too much on the side of Philo’s view: a quixotically changeable Cleopatra, immersed in her own self-image, only too ready to fake her own death in order to get some response from Antony. Now – that’s all there in the play. But there also is another side, a noble Cleopatra, to whom her followers are desperately faithful as Antony’s are not, to whom the values of Egypt are sacrosanct, including her commitment to water and sail. To this noble woman, the poison of the asp is preferable to subservience to Octavius Caesar, who, though he seems to offer due regard to her royalty, cannily foresees that ‘her life in Rome Would be eternal to our triumph’. (Act 5, Sc 1) He envisages the captivity which Cleopatra also foresees, a subjugation which is simply unacceptable for a great ruler such as she is.

As for Antony, his key moment in the play is that where he calls to himself ‘All my sad captains … Let’s mock the midnight bell’ (Act 3. Sc 13). Antony is all too aware at this point that the game is up; it’s there in the ‘sad’ of ‘sad captains’, and also in the subsequent ‘I’ll force The wine peep through their scars’ – the wayward celebratory wine doubling as blood yet to be shed. But ‘There’s sap in ‘t yet. The next time I do fight I’ll make death love me; for I will contend Even with his pestilent scythe.’ This is an Antony who knows he’s done for, but will still contend because that’s what he knows. But meanwhile – ‘one other gaudy night’. Such important tragic moments, caught in Shakespeare’s sublime late poetry, were in part lost because this Antony seemed, to us, never to be fully Roman; he had long since succumbed to Egyptian ways, his cultural seduction complete. When Cleopatra understands intuitively (Act 1, Sc. 2) that ‘A Roman thought hath struck him’, we should feel a cold thrill, as Rome sends its sharpened arrow into Antony’s heart to reclaim him. But in Rome he seems no different, apart from donning a uniform – dispatching the business of placating Octavius Caesar as quickly as he can, including an entirely pragmatic marriage to his sister Octavia, carousing Pompey into amity in a night to equal ‘Egyptian Bacchanals’ (drunk again), and then hieing himself with all haste to his pleasure ‘I’ the east’.

However, in this emphasis on the failings of the central performances and of the production as a whole, it must be said that we were apparently alone, as the many five-star reviews of both actors, and direction, confirm. Perhaps this was one occasion in which Live Relay worked badly. The relentless close-ups of Live Relay are at odds with the massive and unforgiving scale of the Olivier theatre. Another blogger notes that the result is often ‘TOO SHOUTY’. Certainly, this production needed some quiet moments. But those that there were felt manufactured, as Fiennes gathered his household staff together to sit upon the ground and talk of many things, but mainly his gratitude to them. Perhaps I’m being ungracious, but these ‘quiet moments’ felt too much like Fiennes auditioning prematurely for King Lear, his sad little boyish, oh-too-world-weary Antony attempting to take on tragic dimensions but failing.

What this production and its live broadcast did convey was the sheer beauty and variety of the play’s poetry. If the way Antony and Cleopatra are each reported resounds more than the actions of the human beings we see on stage, what still remains is that poetry. We see, in Cleopatra’s words, Antony’s ‘delights’ as ‘dolphin-like, they showed his back above The element they lived in’. (Act 5, Sc. 2) And Enobarbus’ memory of Cleopatra hopping ‘forty paces through the public street’ spreads into all of our memories. Enobarbus’ verdict is significant – a Roman to the core, his loyalty all for his beloved Antony, he nonetheless sees Cleopatra with both a sharp and a generous vision. From this small vignette of her hopping like a child, till she has to stop for lack of breath, he goes to the heart of her supremacy over the imaginations of others: ‘she did make defect perfection, And, breathless, power breathe forth’. (Act 2, Sc 2)

A tragedy should come to its emotional peak with the deaths of its protagonist(s). Difficult as these final deaths are for the actor – Antony is an awful long time a-dying – , as befits a play about report, the deepest emotion comes with how those deaths are subsequently described in some of the most memorable poetry of the play. Cleopatra flails around in highly emotive language for some time. But when she sees that ‘the odds is gone And there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon’, we share with her the great emptiness of death; when at last she accepts, ‘That case of this huge spirit now is cold’, we feel the emptying out of the spirit of Antony from his ‘captain’s heart’ and once-virile body. And after Cleopatra’s death, Charmian’s simple view of her as ‘A lass unparallel’d’ stays with us more touchingly than all the grandiose images – even if Cleopatra herself might have preferred the latter.

Oh – and that snake. In the lead up, we’d been promised a live snake. And yes indeed, there was the live and very snake-like actual snake in Cleopatra’s death scene – so much and so dominantly a live snake that really nobody could think about anything else, including, I surmise, Sophie Okonedo. And then subsequently the hapless Charmian (Gloria Obianyo), who has to simultaneously take its sting but dispose of the snake before she dies. This required an awkward, almost amateurish, moment of stage business. Even watching it on film, we were all thinking – what if the snake escapes?! A highbrow version of Snakes on a Plane? Not the right thought to be having as Cleopatra takes the Roman but also the highly Egyptian way forward, and out.

Enough of carping. As always, the play remains. And it’s a wonderful play. Our disappointment is a measure of how much we were expecting – which is where we came in.

Antony and Cleopatra continues at the National Theatre until January 19th 2019. Very limited availability but some seats always available on the day.

The next live broadcast from the National Theatre is Richard II, with Simon Russell Beale, on January 15th 2019.