Does anyone else always forget that Billy Shakes wrote plays about historical figures that weren’t kings of England? Well, I honestly forgot that Shakespeare wrote a play about Mark Antony and Cleopatra and their weird manipulative love that drove Rome to war and them to their deaths. I was too busy reading the fun ones. But despite my ignorance of this play, and despite the fact that this production of Antony & Cleopatra clocks in at 3 ½ hours with only one intermission (whereas The Inheritance Part 1 is (10 minutes) shorter and has two), we had to see the big f-ing thing because it stars RALPH FIENNES! That’s pronounced ‘rafe’, to rhyme with ‘the English paaaaaaaaatient’, which if you are like me you hear Billy Crystal singing every time anyone mentions Ralph Fiennes. Seeing him onstage for hours, let’s just say I sang this Oscar opening number (in my head) a whole heck of a lot. Anyway, with Ralph playing Mark Antony, and with Tony-winner Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra, this production seemed like a must-see. Turns out, it’s more of a ‘see if you have the time but don’t run or risk injury getting there’ kinda thing.
Oh by the way Ralph’s real name is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.
So this play takes place after Julius Caesar is assassinated and his assassins are killed. It would be fun for you to read Billy’s Julius Caesar first and then see this! Remember how much we loved that? (Probably my best review ever.) Mark Antony rules Rome as part of the triumvirate, or three-men-ate, instituted after Caesar’s death, so he is in power alongside Lepidus (who isn’t really important; I think he was tired and was napping) and Octavius. They sometimes call him Octavius, and sometimes Caesar (Julius Caesar was his great-uncle and he is his adopted son and heir, not that they tell you this in the play), but never the most well known of his names: Augustus, as in the first emperor of Rome. Women in the bathroom line thought that it was regular Caesar, not knowing there were several people who used that name. Ugh! Not saying we should cater to idiots but wouldn’t things have been clearer calling him Augustus? I guess it gives away the ending but can you spoil ancient history?
Anyway the triumvirate is ruling Rome and taking names but they’re pissed at Mark Antony because he is shirking his duties and living in up in Egypt with his lover Cleopatra, and transforming in his men’s opinions into a ‘strumpet’s fool’. Rude. We meet Cleopatra’s entourage and see how she seems fun but is terrifying too, and we see Antony completely immersed in resort life, wearing loose linen pants and shirts that show too much chest hair. Cleopatra and Antony make funny jokes about how much his wife Fulvia sucks, and it’s so funny, but then news arrives that Fulvia has died, and so they make more jokes about how great that is! Mah wife! She dead! They don’t come across as the most sympathetic of characters (not that anyone thought they would be).
Antony is happily drunk and swimming all day in the sun, but Octavius, tired of his nonsense, calls him back to Rome because their thrupledom is threatened by pirates, and not the fun Johnny Depp kind. In an attempt to heal the rift between the two leaders, Octavius’s general Agrippa (played by a woman who spoke in a really annoying way, I’m sorry) suggests that Antony, newly single heyoooo, marry Octavius’s sister Octavia, who is quiet and blonde, so, perfect. I like that they gave Antony literally a hot minute to mourn before marrying this old fart off onto a young lady whose parents were not too creative with the names. But Antony and Octavius shake hands at their amazing negotiation of the female property and all seems to be well. Except Antony’s right hand man Enobarbus (now his parents were creative) notes that this prim blonde lady will not be enough for Antony since he loves the wildly, mm, interesting Cleopatra. Enobarbus proclaims “other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies”, which sounds dirty. Cleopatra hears of the marriage and blames the messenger for the news, which is like exactly what Shakespeare told you NOT to do. That's Billy's Rule #1! But everyone assures her that Octavia is unattractive and boring and, most importantly, short, which Sophie’s Cleopatra uses to hilarious effect in the one scene that made me laugh out loud.
Antony and Octavius go to one of the pirates on his SUBMARINE (more on that below) and they make a truce, and then they all have a raucous drunken party which is my nightmare to even watch, and people play loud drums and you’re like how many hours of this until the interval’, but then after they leave, Octavius and Lepidus decide to break the truce and wage war against the submarine pirate. Antony is not happy, and it does seem like kind of a dick move. So thus begins the war between Antony and Octavius. Cleopatra ‘helps’ Antony, but then they just flee and leave all his troops to die, which is also a dick move. No one in this play comes off too well.
So, A and C are back in Egypt trying to live large while war is coming, and they are sooo toxic together. They may love each other but they also seem to really hate each other and use their love as weapons. It’s not cute for them. The night before a big battle on land, Enobarbus deserts Antony and joins forces with Octavius, for reasons incredibly unclear. This production tried to make it look like he was having a thang with Agrippa, since here she was a woman, but it’s not supported by the text that he would have done it for her so like, why. Antony loses the battle and, like a typical white man burdened with superfragile masculinity, he blames Cleopatra. “This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me!” he shouts, because it’s easier for him/men to condemn women than take responsibility for being shitty and losing battles. He announces he will kill her (still so typical, ya basic), so Cleopatra breaks Shakespeare Rule #2 and decides to fake her own death to make him love her again. Then she’ll pull a Ross at his funeral and come out of the bedroom and be like “I knew you loved me! I’m still alive!” Basic. Of course, Antony hears that she is dead and decides to kill himself, but he’s an asshole so he orders his soldier to do it. The soldier is so upset by this that the soldier decides to kill himself instead, and Antony is like wow what a brave kid I just led to suicide, I should be that brave, oh me, and so he tries to kill himself but it doesn’t take right away. Cleopatra eventually does her famous snake dance in her monument, but not before she kisses one of her ladies in waiting who *dies immediately*, from lesbianism???
Needless to say, there’s some real plot going on. Sure most of Shakespeare’s histories are masterpieces, but is this? I hate everyone in it. And it’s weird to see so much liberty taken with facts. And it was extra weird in that regard to see most of the cast in modern garb in a directorial attempt to make the story relevant to today, when it’s freaking about CLEOPATRA. I’m cool with placing older works in different locations and/or eras, but I always find it strange to do that when the characters are based on real historical figures. Like they didn’t have machine guns in the Battle of Actium, guys. But the modern look did allow for the two best parts of this production: Sophie’s costumes and the set design. The rest of the cast’s costumes overall were just fine, so it seemed clear that all the money and creative vision was spent on draping Cleopatra in the most gorgeous clothes onstage this year, and it paid off. Man alive were they amazing! I really wanted to shout WHAT YASSS every time she entered a scene in a new incredible flowing satin gown with built-in cape. She had so many built-in capes! Who is she, David Rose???
But the most amazing part of the show was the set. Cleopatra’s palace was shown from the back where they lounged around a gorgeous three-section pool, filled with water that various cast members fell into at times (on purpose!). It looked like a fancy hotel in Morocco or something, beautifully tiled and glittering in the light. I think I actually gasped when that set miraculously fell under the cavernous stage and up from the underground came an enormous submarine. And I mean freaking enormous. Where are they storing these massive sets! I can’t fathom the engineering genius that allows for the rapid transition between these truly magnificent pieces. Cleopatra’s triangular monument was also impressively built, and the lighting along with it really nailed Egypt’s brutal sun. I was less enthused about the various triumvirs offices, made to look like modern government offices with a hint of evil billionaire lairs, but that’s mostly due to my aversion to the modernization of the piece in that regard. It’s weird seeing Octavius Caesar do his government work in a room that looks like it has the buttons for an evil billionaire’s illegal nukes while we watch multiple screens there just for their own sake.
So, yeah, the story is not put forth as compellingly as the visuals, sadly, and I found myself wishing the performances and plot could match the incredible magic of the set. But it was great to see Sophie and Ralph live (that’s long-i ‘live’ like in person; they die) and I’m truly obsessed with the set design, so all in all it was worth seeing.
The program is ATROCIOUS. Actors have headshots for a reason! Use them! What kind of program doesn’t have the pictures and names next to each other? I’m so mad, and as I learned from the show, I should blame a woman for this.
The National Theatre continues to boggle the mind re its staffing decisions. No ushers or managers or staff of any sort can be found at any level of the theatre, outside the main entrance (what, 8 flights of stairs down?) and outside of bartenders, who are too swamped to deal with non-alcohol related questions. It’s really despicable, that if you have someone recording the show – or someone who needs medical attention – there’s no one to be found. They almost deserve to have their show recorded.