Review - Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre
One of the great things about British theatre is how it creates our own brand of international movie stars, from Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren to Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and Carey Mulligan. And that, having trained and begun their careers onstage, they still also return to it regularly. It's their true home. Right now we have McKellen back in the West End, aged 79, scaling that Everest of a role as King Lear; while at the National Theatre two RADA-trained, former Oscar-nominees Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo are back in the title roles of Antony and Cleopatra.
It's a thrilling endorsement of the importance of the theatre to their lives - and in turn, to enrich ours. Fiennes, who was lately made the National his theatrical base, was last seen in the Lyttelton in 2015 in Shaw's loquacious Man and Superman, also directed by Simon Godwin as is Antony and Cleopatra. Now 55, his hair may be thinning a bit more than then, but first appearing strutting across the stage in a shirt that is open to the waist, he reveals a still admirably taut and toned body. But what matters more is the tone of that mellifluous voice, and the coiled energy of his physical performance.
He is joined as Cleopatra by Okonedo, seen last year opposite Damian Lewis in the West End revival of Edward Albee's The Goat..., and she is utterly splendid, too, with a shock of frazzled orange-hued hair that looks like a lion's mane.
Together, they bring a ferocious, impassioned urgency to this forever compelling story of the passionate and violent co-dependent relationship between the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Roman power broker Mark Antony.
Unlike last year's RSC production of this play that was given a period feel, Simon Godwin's modern-dress version gives it a contemporary sheen, but also a more propulsive cinematic flow, too. As splendidly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, it is both truly epic and intimate, as required.
In a show of ensemble strength across the company, there are also superb contributions from Tim McMullan as Enorbabus, Fisayo Akinade as Eros and Kathy Stephens as Agrippa.