Cleopatra is a modern hero and a drama queen. Shakespeare is claimed to be universal but many a times it just sounds anachronistic. The theatre, being a male dominated world throughout the centuries, rarely manages to portray a female character realistically, so it is no surprise that a play could never be conceived as the hagiography of any woman.
Cleopatra is viewed as a highly volatile queen, who brings about Antony’s – her lover but most importantly one of the Roman triumvirate – inglorious defeat and eventual suicide.
The story unfolding onstage is a tragedy, valiant people run into swords or die of broken heart, the majestic drama queen commits suicide offering her neck to a live snake on stage, the same snake claims the life of one of her ladies in waiting as well, by design, not by chance. To modern audiences this sounds like farce material. Despite or maybe because of the play’s shortcomings, I loved the ironically nuanced performance. We witness a masterclass in acting while veteran actors, Fiennes and Okonedo, enchant us with their hilarious performance. I genuinely enjoyed their humorous, irreverent rendition. I heard many tutting amongst the audience, while I was totally gripped by the action on stage. And genuinely had a good time, as I was so close to the action, I felt I could smile with the characters, I could cry when they cried, I could share in the dramatic desperation and longing, no matter how foreign and remote the story unfolding was compared to my background and historical moment.
I felt the war action could easily be done away with, I can’t take any more combat boots and fake battles on stage, all totally dispensable. The waving of the Italian flag during a drunken party, should also be discarded, this was Rome 1800 years before Italy was even conceived.
But these are minor details, though really I had enough of western 3 piece suits and military attire, bring back the Roman toga, the flowing and glowing robes. Moreover indulging some serious wine and involving the audience should be a must. I could not help myself thinking of the audiences in Shakespeare’s times. There would be no tutting, there would not be any stuck-up intellectual demanding respect for the purity of the play. A three-hour drama could not be a serious aﬀair, I believe this ironic performance led by the wonderfully dramatic Sophie Okonedo has brought back some life into Shakespeare, new life, new blood. It could be more in your face, it could really challenge the perfectly rigid intelligentsia, just one further push and it would be perfect.
Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre, 22 September 2018