First things first. This production of Shakespeare’s tragedy in the Olivier is a colossal three hours and a half hours long. That’s the same as watching Carry On Cleo TWICE with enough time in between for a leisurely bathe in ass’s milk. But what a wonderful theatrical journey this is. Hildegard Bechtler’s swirling set transports us effortlessly from palatial Alexandria to a hi-tech Rome fizzing with TV screens, while one stunning transition conjures Pompey’s massive battleship out of the floor.
Director Simon Godwin makes the clever choice to begin at the end, with [spoiler alert] Caesar (Tunji Kasim) announcing over the body of Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) that she will be buried alongside Antony (Ralph Fiennes). Then we slip back in time to see the Egyptian queen, who has remained prostrate on stage, coming to life in her lover’s arms.
The casting is magnificent. I’d been excited by the initial announcement back in October 2017 and wasn’t disappointed. Fiennes blazes as both “strumpet’s fool” and tough Roman general. But Okonedo shines even brighter. She flits between witty, playful, moody, and dangerous. The scene in which she angrily tries to drown an unfortunate messenger bearing bad news is a hoot. She’s surely going to win awards. Her costumes, by Evie Gurney, are fab.
And yes, that’s a real snake at the end. It curled right on cue. I suspect it has theatrical asp-irations.