Our third lockdown outing to the National Theatre was a return to the real classics: Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, performed by Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo respectively. The play is pretty faithful (as far as I can tell, having never seen the play before) but seems to try and modernise the setting, which is just confusing. I was happy with them wandering around in modern clothing, but the central politics, wars etc. are all clearly taking place in the ancient Mediterranean, so throwing in short TV montages of riots and the occasional slightly re-interpretated line ends up feeling out of place. It would do better, in my view, to either entirely modernise the setting and tell the story with modern countries etc. or to have just stuck with the historic vibe, rather than attempt a weird hybrid.
Set design was phenomenal, somehow managing to make you feel like you were actually in a city or on a battlefield with surprisingly little actual stuff. I was impressed to see a pool with actual water on stage (even if it almost made Fiennes fall over as he rushed off over a puddle at one point). And of course the acting was brilliant. Fiennes plays a world-weary and utterly besotted Antony, whilst Okonedo's amazingly diva-esque Cleopatra is nothing short of a force of nature. Her ability to consistently make herself the centre of attention without trying had a wonderfully modern feel to it and her comic timing was perfect. In that sense, I doubt I'll ever see a better version of the play.
Which is good, because I have no strong desire to ever see Antony and Cleopatra again. Don't get me wrong, the play is fascinating and tells the story well; I actually spent a while learning about the true (or as true as we know) history afterwards and it seems pretty faithful. It's just incredibly long and you never really want to like anyone all of that much. As Alison put it: a Shakespearean tragedy is nothing but tragedy from start-to-finish. There are moments of levity, but it's just pretty depressing and oh so very long. As with all of Shakespeare's classics, I imagine rewatching the play will reveal dozens of subtle wordplays and foreshadowing, but I'm not sure it would be worth it. What I will say, though, is that any TV producers looking for their next epic could do much worse and it does make me want to watch Rome, which I believe covers quite a lot of it, but I'd love to see someone like the BBC pick up some Shakespearean histories and turn them into serialised shows in short bursts.