Anja Vujković blogs about the subtleties of performance after watching ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at the National

On January 14th 2019, I saw a live theatre production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre in London. It was directed by Simon Godwin, and the undoubted stars of the play, are Sophie Okonedo playing the part of Cleopatra, and Ralph Fiennes in the role of Antony. Aiding them in the pursuit of bringing the tale of Antony and Cleopatra to modern society, and showing the audience that the characters are not just historic legends, but real people whose feelings we can understand and relate to, were Tunji Kasim as Octavius Caesar, Gloria Obianyo as Charmian and Fisayo Akinade as Eros. The play is a tragic love story about two leaders of the greatest empires of their time, who need to be strong in front of the world, but can truly be themselves, vulnerable and fragile, in front of each other, as their deaths approach. It was performed in a naturalistic style, with elements of non-naturalism, such as breaking the fourth wall and the use of split stage.

There are many ways in which Okonedo and Fiennes used their performance skills to convey the characters they played, and to portray their evolution throughout the piece. They kept the performance over exaggerated in some respects, but not as over exaggerated as they would have been in the Shakespearean era, which contributed to the naturalistic style of the play, conveyed believable relationships, and gave the tragedy a modern feel. Their gestures might have been amplified in comparison to a completely naturalistic performance, but at every moment in the play their facial expressions, physicality, and voice made it perfectly clear what state of mind their characters were in, and what emotions they felt, which was crucial to the success of the play, and contributed to Godwin’s intention of making the characters more realistic, as well as giving the audience an insight into the minds of these giants of history that time cannot ignore.

The first moment in which Okonedo and Fiennes gave us a glimpse into the characters’ personalities was the very first scene, where Antony and Cleopatra find themselves in Cleopatra’s palace. A Roman soldier tries to inform Antony about his duties in Rome, and tries to deliver news about Antony’s deceased wife, but Antony is already deeply in love with Cleopatra, and does not want to listen. Okonedo keeps her shoulders far back, her back completely straight, with a slight smile curving the edges of her lips, and her voice deep, as Cleopatra is certain she has complete power over Antony, who could not be conquered by the most powerful leaders of the world, but Cleopatra, who is dressed in a “cloth-of-gold”, whom age cannot wither, managed to seduce him, conquering his heart, and gaining total control. Her dress was surprisingly simple for an empress, which only made her look more majestic, just as Anna Karenina wore simple dresses, as her beauty could only be lessened by extravagant clothing. Okonedo and Fiennes had linked arms while they walked, as Okonedo glided across the stage not only with her legs, but with her hips, making her movement more fluent, representing Cleopatra’s seductiveness and making her even more appealing. Fiennes, who plays an entitled warrior, usually held his head very high and rarely smiled, was now fully relaxed, his shoulders more forward than usual, as he carried a wide smile on his lips. Even though throughout the scene he addressed the Roman soldiers, he never once looked at them, and kept his eyes fixed on Okonedo, showing just how mesmerised Antony is by Cleopatra’s beauty, and how overwhelmed he is by their passion. Later in the scene, they start teasing each other. Both Fiennes and Okonedo radiate a playful energy, as she kept her head high, and her feline-like movements continuous. Even while they were teasing each other, Okonedo was still in control, as she spoke slowly, calmly, keeping her voice deep, whereas Fiennes spoke in a more unsettled manner and a quicker pace, as if Antony was trying to impress Cleopatra with his responses, and keep her interested in him. This type of behaviour was very childish and showed us how Antony and Cleopatra are completely free when together, and how they bring youthfulness to each other. This scene contributed to the total dramatic effectiveness of the play, as it made the characters believable, and set the grounds for realistic psychological development of the characters further on in the play; it set the sensual tone of Egypt, and the section of the scene where they were playfully teasing exhibited Antony’s desire to be younger than he truly is, showing his worries about his relevance fading away with age, which humanises him in the eyes of the audience, contributing to the truth of the characters.

Another moment when Okonedo unveiled multiple layers of Cleopatra’s personality is long after Antony had gone back to Rome. She is in her pavilion drunk, and sways from side to side with a bottle in her hands, pretending to be happy, keeping her whole body relaxed and engaged in the movement, eyes closed, while she’s making her servants dance. The servants are worried about the queen, but must dance on her command, frowning, and making almost robot-like movements, showing the tension in their bodies, contributing to the unpleasant and tense atmosphere, as Cleopatra wishes to evoke happiness in herself, or at least eliminate the despair, reminiscing about Antony. This shows that even though Cleopatra played games with Antony, she really did love him, and was devastated by his departure, however, the moment made me question if it was truly love that made her suffer, or if it was the loss of control and manipulation over Antony what she was really mourning. Their false festivities were rudely interrupted by a messenger from Rome who came to inform Cleopatra about Antony’s marriage to Octavia. He did not get a chance to speak at first, as intoxicated Cleopatra, portrayed by Okonedo still lightly swaying from side to side, holding her head high and speaking in a quick pace, but less articulate, under the influence of alcohol, was interrupting him mid-sentence, promising him gold if Antony was alive and in good relations with Octavius, but declaring that if the messenger said Antony was dead “The gold I give thee will I melt and pour down thy ill-uttering throat”. Okonedo manages to portray Cleopatra’s mercurial nature incredibly well, as she uses her facial expressions, swiftly changing them as Cleopatra’s thoughts pass through her head, showing a hopeful Cleopatra, happy that Antony is alive, smiling and speaking in a higher pitch, or an angry empress, who has a frown on her face, speaking in a deeper voice but still quickly, clenching her fists, and not leading with her hips, but with her head as she walks towards him, ready to slit the messenger’s throat should the news he delivers be bad. When Cleopatra finds out Antony is now married, she starts chasing the messenger around her sunken pools, but Okonedo does not actually chase the messenger, she stares at Akinade without blinking, bends her knees a bit, resembling a lion preying on an unsuspecting zebra, which will die no matter how quickly it runs, now that it has caught the jungle king’s eye. Once again Okonedo leads with her hips, showing Cleopatra’s enticing but dangerous nature, as she violently dunked the messenger’s head in the pool. He manages to get out, and Okonedo’s voice raises gradually, until she is yelling at the messenger, standing with her shoulders back, her back straight, and her head high, while her nostrils are expanded, and her neck tense. After her rage, she realises that it is not the messenger’s fault that Antony is married- “I that do bring the news made not the match”, and suddenly becomes overwhelmed by sadness. This is possibly the moment in which the contrast between Cleopatra from the beginning- the strong and driven leader of Egypt- and the Cleopatra she has become- desperate, needy, with her façade slowly crumbling in front of others, as they realise she is as week and human as everyone who surrounds her- is most obvious.

Okonedo shows great control over her facial expressions, as she is able to establish a completely different atmosphere in seconds. She lowers her shoulders, frowns, but still keeps her head high, to appear strong in front of the messenger. However, as soon as he leaves, we can see, not a woman to fear and admire, but a woman whose heart is broken, and who cannot bear the pain of being betrayed by the one she loved most. Okonedo sits on her lounge chair, lying in Obianyo’s arms like a fragile little girl whose whole world just crumbled into pieces. She manages to cry on stage, firmly holding onto Obianyo’s hands, portraying Cleopatra in the most human way possible, making the audience relate to her pain. This scene contributes to the total dramatic effectiveness of the play, as Okonedo uses her performance skills to portray not only one, but various different aspects of Cleopatra’s psyche, showing us that she is not just this unapproachable, distant, manipulative, selfish woman, but a person who can fall in love just like everyone else, and just like everyone else can be shredded into atoms by jealousy and betrayal. This also shows that there are no “evil” or “good” archetypes applied in this piece; there is no black and white, only grey, and that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, which makes the characters three-dimensional, accessible, and just as relatable now as they were at the time the play was written, fulfilling the directorial intent of making the relationships between the characters realistic.

Another moment in which the starry duo showcased their theatrical abilities was right after Antony had fled the battle, abandoned his soldiers, and gone back to Egypt. While he is in another room writing a letter to Caesar, Thyreus, Caesar’s messenger comes to see Cleopatra, and as they speak, Enobarbus makes Antony believe Cleopatra is forming an alliance with Octavius. Upon hearing this news, Antony rushes back into the room catching Thyreus kissing Cleopatra’s hand. Fiennes finally erupted, yelling at the messenger. He had a frown on his face, kept his fists clenched, and was inhaling shallow and quick breaths, which portrayed how upset Antony was. At this moment Okonedo, who had a smile on her face and a melodic and sensual timbre to her voice when speaking with the messenger, which conveyed Cleopatra trying to gain control over the situation, was now frightened and flinched at the site of Fiennes, while keeping her eyes wide open to communicate fear and distress. As the messenger is sent to be whipped, Fiennes’ face became redder by the moment, and Okonedo, conveyed fear for the first time, making the character seem unstable and more fragile than ever, as if Cleopatra was more scared of Antony’s words than of Egypt being destroyed by Caesar. For the first time, Cleopatra was not in control as she was shocked by Antony’s rage, and Okonedo portrayed this by timidly stepping towards Fiennes at moments, but then backing away, as if she feared him hitting her. Fiennes kept raising the pitch and volume of his voice and making wide hand gestures, causing an unsettling atmosphere. Okonedo managed to show fear, vulnerability, and made it appear as if it was not Antony’s words that hurt Cleopatra, but the very thought of him doubting her was what cut her soul like a sword. This was portrayed by Okonedo being tense and timid, but also crying, and making it seem as if she was trying to hold the tears back but was unable to. Even though soon enough Antony regained faith in her love, and decided to go to war once again, this moment was crucial for displaying character development, and contributing to the overall dramatic effectiveness of the play. Not only does it relate to the audience on a socially-political level, showing what people were willing to do to gain power, which is very much an actual topic in our present day, but it is the first scene in which Cleopatra is not trying to be completely in control, and the first scene when Antony, who is usually very calm in Cleopatra’s presence, is quite unsettled and doubts her. The characters project primal fears which all humans experience, beginning with losing importance, being betrayed by the ones we love the most, losing someone we truly love, the fear of failure, and the highly unpleasant feeling of being doubted when telling the truth – the feeling of injustice. Okonedo and Fiennes take us on an emotional rollercoaster, as we see Antony truly broken for the first time, and Cleopatra being afraid, and then seeing them happy together again. The jealousy Fiennes conveys, and the helplessness we are able to read on Okonedo’s face truly breathe life into the characters, which humanises them completely, making their relationship believable to the fullest extent. Their outfits also fulfill one of the directorial intents, as Fiennes is dressed in a soldier’s outfit, and Okonedo in a simple, but stunning dress, which, as well as their stances, emphasise the differences between Rome and Egypt, for it is not only the set design- oriental, relaxed and sensual, blue and gold, illuminated-by-the-warm-colour-orange Egypt, and marble, stone cold and austere, black and white, illuminated-by-the-cold-colour-blue Rome- that clearly shows these differences.

On January 14th 2019, I saw a live theatre production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre in London. I did not know what to expect and was largely enriched after having seen the play. Not only did Okonedo and Fiennes pull the strings of puppets that are Antony and Cleopatra extremely skillfully, but they made them live for three hours on stage. They confronted the audience with the reality of alliances being made and broken almost on a whim, politicians intertwining their personal lives with the decisions that they make which affect millions of people’s lives, but more importantly, they used their performance skills to tell a tragic story of two lovers who fought a quixotic battle that could not be won; they made it seem as if it was not Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes who were in front of us, but Antony and Cleopatra, ready to “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall” for their love. The two stars made the relationship between the characters believable, as they did not focus on making their performances extravagant, but realistic, and showing that the two legends who live on in history were not just stone-cold leaders of powerful empires, but were people, capable of love, tenderness, fear, jealousy, and complete devastation. Cleopatra said, “Eternity was in our lips and eyes”, and I rest assured that anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing Okonedo and Fiennes lure the audience into the world of the play with their exquisite performances shall carry that memory eternally.

Anja Vukjovic

Y12 A Level Drama and Theatre Student