Seeing Stars: English Pre-U Pupils Dazzled by The National Theatre’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’


Lower Sixth Pre-U English pupils recently enjoyed what is certain to be one of the theatrical highlights of 2019:  the National Theatre’s stunning production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra.

Along with the usual thrills of seeing a contemporary staging of this Jacobean masterpiece, the pupils had another obvious lure in the form of a two very famous lead actors, with Oscar Winner Ralph Fiennes as the fiery Roman general Marc Antony and Sophie Okonedo as the magisterial Egyptian Queen. 

This production, with its seven revolving sets and lavish evocation of Cleopatra’s court, was always going to be something of a spectacle.  After all, who could fail to be impressed by the sudden appearance of a fountain and swimming pool on stage, or of a pillared mausoleum, or of a Roman General’s residence, replete with enough faux-marble to build a new theatre?  This is a play that demands a certain grandeur.  It’s all about excess; excessive loves and hates, monstrous egos and bloated reputations, all conveyed in some of Shakespeare’s most ornamented, bombastic rhetoric.  It’s a big play, and it needs to be done big. 

The stage on its own would have held our attention, as would the evocative sounds of Egyptian sistrums and arched harps, which brought the music of the past brilliantly alive on stage, but ultimately it was the winning performances of two actors — both absolutely at the top of their game — that made the day. 

In his much-anticipated return to the National, Fiennes was mesmerising as the ageing general, a figure torn between his desire to love passionately in exile, or flex his martial muscles in Rome.  Okonedo, too, seemed to glide over the stage, so convincingly regal and imperious as a Queen too blinded by love and pride to see her own fallibility. 

It is a testament to the sheer mastery of the actors, and the play’s ability to tantalise with false hopes, that when tragedy finally strikes late in act five, it genuinely came as a surprise to the audience.  And a heavy blow it was too, with the appearance of a live snake on stage for Cleopatra’s famous death actually drawing collective gasps from the thousand-strong audience. 

There could be no better introduction to a set Pre-U play than this, and pupils were fulsome in their praise.  “The actors were so convincing”, enthused Bloomsbury’s Millie Sefton, “especially considering that they maintained such intensity for more than three hours on stage”.   Others were struck by the brutal realism of the final acts:  “when Eros stabbed himself”, said Pre-U pupil Callista Bailey, “the audience drew breath, even though they knew it was coming.” 

And so the play ends, with the Queen mounting the steps of her mausoleum, feeling “immortal longings” stirring within her.  With such power, such poetry, such staggering staging, it is little wonder that a play celebrating the immortal couple is itself a timeless work.  It will certainly live long in the memory of the pupils who saw it.

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