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Theatre Review Infinite variety embellishes spellbinding Cleopatra from Sophie Okonedo

Antony and Cleopatra
National Theatre, London

ANY assessment of this absorbing production must begin and end with the breathtaking performance of Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra.

Capricious, self-obsessed and ever so slightly unhinged, Okonedo’s leading lady is the raging epicentre of the play, forcing others to respond to her earth-shaking movements as she unsettles their equilibrium and undermines the foundations of their best-laid plans.

It’s an emotionally wrought interpretation that reaches a high peak of intensity in the tear-stained, melodramatic final scene, but it’s also punctuated by inspired moments of levity and humour as Okonedo, bringing to life the manipulative fancies that pervade Cleopatra’s character, convincingly switches moods in the blink of an eye.

There’s a feeling, almost, that Okonedo has allowed the Egyptian queen into a spiritual possession of her body and one has to speculate how she’ll be able to keep up this level of emotional effort across such a long run. Little wonder she looked utterly drained at the rousing curtain call.

For Okonedo to put Ralph Fiennes in the shade is an achievement to stand with Cleopatra’s emasculation of Antony, for Fiennes is compelling as her distracted lover — a man clearly on the downslope of age rather than the upslope of achievement, drinking too much and gradually losing control of his discipline and judgement.

Staged in what director Simon Godwin describes as “an imagined present,” Hildegard Bechtler’s ingeniously intertwined sets provide a backdrop of marbled opulence and military map-rooms that convey a feeling of the money and power at the centre of the story while helping to smooth over the sometimes bewildering shift of scenes between corporatist Rome and sensuous Middle East.

It is Okonedo’s presence, however, that most effectively glues everything together — so much so that, whenever she’s required to leave the stage, one can feel the audience itching for her swift reappearance.

Excellent as the rest of the cast may be, it’s difficult to imagine this production could have reached such heights without her.

Runs until January 19, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

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