[Johan Persson Photography]
“Though I make this marriage for my peace ⁄ In the East my pleasure lies”
Surrounded by gossip and scandal, Antony (Ralph Fiennes) has fallen hard for Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo). Civil war and rebellion is ever-present, alliances are strained, but Antony just can’t quit his Egyptian Queen.
We are poolside at the palace of Cleopatra, where the air is hot with the Egyptian sun, and the alcohol is ever-flowing. This in stark (and stunning) contrast with the cold, pale Rome and its concrete, utilitarian surroundings.
Antony & Cleopatra is one of those plays that could have really done with an editor. At its core, you have this volatile relationship, as passionate as it is deadly, but it’s entirely surrounded by weighty historical context:
Antony is one of three triumvirs, alongside Lepidus and, Antony’s ultimate antagonist, Octavius Caesar. Assigned Rome’s eastern provinces amid the Sicilian revolt, he meets and falls for Cleopatra, and commits the Roman period equivalent of turning off his phone. Chaos ensues.
The only thing that could overcome such detail, then, is the turbulence of this forbidden love.
Tempestuous. Condemned. Judged. Together, Antony and Cleopatra are a titanic clash of tempers, power, and libido. They use as much as they love and lust for one another, wanting to indulge their desires without interruption, yet permanently second-guessing the other’s intentions. It’s a precarious balance to strike, and this production struggled to keep it.
Antony: an older general, bored by his home, and seduced by the East. By this point in his life, he has seen plenty battle and high-stakes negotiations, it isn’t surprising that he’d be captivated by the young queen and her surroundings. While Fiennes eventually gives way to his realised Antony – conflicted between what he must do and what he wants to do – he spends more time almost avoiding the vision he has for the character than embracing it. When he does, the conflict is fascinating to watch. Post-Pompey’s dinner party in Act II, for example: a mass drunken play-wrestle with the boys breaks out, revealing a divide between where his own physical boundaries lie versus Pompey’s. Does Pompey have bigger things to worry about, or has Antony spent too much time in the East and lost touch with his sense of duty?
Then there is Cleopatra: a usually cunning monarch, appearing as this alluring and unpredictable queen, but it’s all perfectly calculated to get what she wants. There’s no denying the vulnerability Okonedo brings to the role; when she hurts for her general, she crumbles. The problem lies in her strength, however, her portrayal initially verging on unstable, loudly lamenting her boytoy, and drinking the pain away in a variety of outfits. A scene that truly encapsulates both this choice of direction, and Fiennes avoidance, is very early in the play where Antony is trying to tell Cleo that he has to leave because of his wife’s death.
Picture the scene
The core of this interaction initially seems cold, with Cleopatra judging Antony for wanting to be with his late wife. Yet as she digs deeper, her analysis isn’t of his compassion, but of his hypocrisy: Antony had no problem deserting his wife to be with Cleopatra in every way imaginable for months at a time. But now she is no longer alive, he feels obligated to leave the East behind. No one can speak to Antony in this way but an equal like Cleopatra. It is such a calculated dissection of Antony’s idiosyncrasies, defining all the aspects of their affair that both unite them and divide them.
However, with Fiennes’ reservation and Okonedo’s lamentation, this scene becomes less of a dressing down, and more an unhinged rant of someone’s side piece. Yes, there is tension between them, Antony almost cowering under his queen’s rage. But there is no dynamic, no real sense of threat of what Antony might say or physically do, as Cleopatra’s words hit his every nerve. Instead, this sets in motion that their relationship’s volatility lies in Antony not wanting to upset Cleopatra, painting her as vulnerable in all the wrong ways.