Monumental or not?

An unexplored territory — Anthony and Cleopatra. The chance given by an online `première` at the National Theatre At Home, re-proposing (in the midst of a `new British order of the theatre` witnessing a real Shakes-boom) hence comes overly welcome. The two stars — on stage for their debut end 2018 at the Oliver Theatre, are Ralph Fiennes, and Sophie Okonedo, under the direction of Simon Godwin.

Quite a crucial concept, the one of `star`, as on the boards of the most majestic theatre of the three hosted inside the unmistakable brutalist building, foremost the most famous performers in the British `entertainment industry` have been acting since its birth. A `cinematographic theatre`, — one might say, also somehow a `TV theatre`, given the consolidated, at this point, golden age of series.

Far from disappointing expectations, it is the movable mechanism designed by Hildegard Bechtler to `sustain` the unsustainable lack of Aristotelian unities, which, in this Shakespeare, is amplified between two opposite worlds the whole narrative structure is built upon. Egypt — symbol of a strange exoticism reaching up to licentiousness, and Rome — symbol of a strange version of a frozen, not yet republican, reasonableness.

The scenographic, and narrative movability, with the assistance of constant, musical intermissions, — hiding, whilst underlining, the sudden as much as embarrassing changes in space, tells the story of the two lovers in the most cinematographic possible way. A mood contemporary costumes are also of assistance for, in a super-technological idea of `war`, recalling the Gulf two, both in colors, and number of military `sequins`.

The first director’s choice is to get into the plot from the end. The lifeless body of the `gypsy` queen, whose lust transformed the valorous combatant into a `strumpet’s fool`. A transformation that has no fear to be seen from everyone, and by everyone to be judged. So here it is another cinema-related topic: Antony and Cleopatra, or it would be better to say Cleopatra and Antony, act the role of `celebrities`, as theirs is a `public` passion.

That is how we enter from the `E-gyptian` side of the dual movable world, into this monumental staging, wind and violins, with the couple playing around a pool as adolescents. They notice the audience — indeed, eyes on their play, and they begin to entertain them. Fiennes is absolutely perfect: no need to pass through rehearsal room, he seems to have landed straight from the set of A Bigger Splash, at least outfit wise.

The melancholic countenance of Okonedo, though, and a voice almost achingly sharp (but it is possibly the video), seems to be little apt to embody the humoral sensuality of the icon she has to perform. More than apt, however, for the most intimately lacerating moments — `Give me some music!`. The chemistry, all in all, is not a `movie` one. Nevertheless, we must not forget we are into a theatre, even if a `national` one, the latter imposing a compelling question.

Does a production of `Antony and Cleopatra` need to be monumental? Though not quite axiomatically as in a 1960s-bob-hair-scintillating-cobra-tiaras manner? Why not focus on less to find out more in the precious folds of the script? A question that might perhaps become a message in the bottle to be entrusted to the waves of a `Shakespearealist` movement currently living in social media at the time of lock down. Hopefully beyond that.

A question addressed to all those who have seen, or thought, in the past, and might imagine, in the future (because not lovers of this expansion of cinema into theatre, not even in times of need — as it is now), a minor version. Some different manner to cut out `pearls` from an extreme vastitude (even for the most inveterate bardolators), some adherence to the canon capable of `playing` with the canon, answering questions it consistently offers.

Pearls that here too are, of course, revealed (how couldn’t it be so?): Fiennes will remain memorable for the Bacchanal in the venter of what might be a nuclear submarine, as well as for the almost adolescent embarrassment opposite to Octavia (a brilliant Hannah Morrish), his true love ever present even if absent, — but it seems to be seeing her, as a shadow possessing him. A feverish `frenziness` willing to, but unable to, conjugate the two worlds. And the two bodies neither.

sophie_okonedo_in_antony_cleopatra-Photo by Johan Persson
© Johan Persson

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