I was delighted and excited to finally be seated in an auditorium waiting for a Shakespeare play to begin. In this case, I looked forward to seeing Antony and Cleopatra at the Quick Center on the campus of Fairfield University, thanks to the NT Live program, which broadcasts events from London’s National Theatre. After 13 months of a virtual IV drip of the Bard directly into my veins, I’ve suffered withdrawal since returning to the States.
It didn’t hurt that the suave Ralph Fiennes and the stunning Sophie Okonedo, respectively, would portray the title characters.
The production quality was superlative. Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a revolving yin-yang featuring a spa-like, tiled, water-infused Egypt on one side and a severe, sterile, angular Rome on the other. The latter, seemingly representative of Antony himself, was an angular, proverbially square peg trying to fit into a round hole, with all the attending sexual connotations.
The divine Evie Gurney-designed costumes (and the paratext included an interview with her at the interval discussing her thoughts behind the wardrobe) echoed this divide. The Romans, except, notably, Antony, wore GQ-worthy tailored, natty attire, including when they donned their military garb. Cleopatra’s gowns were as fluid as the water in the shallow pool on stage. They hugged and caressed her as Antony did. Her attendants’ outfits were more business casual than their business formal Roman counterparts.
The performances were strong. Okonedo managed to deliver just the right balance of seductress, diva, and queen that Josette Simon just missed in the RSC production I saw in Stratford Upon Avon. Fiennes was convincing as well, but I had some issues with the directorial choices foisted upon him. He was the least tailored of anyone on stage, almost sloppy at times, with an overgrown, unkempt beard. He was a drunk. He came across more like a slightly irrational combination of Macbeth and Lear than a venerated soldier and leader handicapped by an almost irrational passion for his Egyptian siren. The approach to this character stripped him of the gravitas and anguish that he should have projected. Still, it was a beautiful pleasure to watch, and the live snake that Cleopatra and her attendant used to commit suicide added quite a thrill, even on screen. I wonder what the folks in the first row of the National Theatre thought when they saw that red, white, and black serpent slither out of the basket of figs.
The ubiquitous presence and perspective of the camera (and I noticed this in the Met Live opera simulcasts as well) quite changes the impact of these performances. The director, rather than the audience member, decides where to focus attention. It sacrifices the panoramic, long shot in favor of frequent close ups on one character or another. This takes the viewer out of the ancient world as it magnifies microphones, makeup, and sweat that would be barely visible even from the best seats in the house. It unintentionally constantly breaks the fourth wall, even though the playwright didn’t intend for that to happen. Still, I appreciate this gift of the opportunity to see this play in my own backyard more than I can say. And I very much look forward to seeing Simon Russell Beale (who spoke at one of the Shakespeare Institute’s Thursday lectures while I was there) tackle that tormented monarch, Richard II, in a few weeks.
Photo by Diane Lowman