No shirt, no shoes, no Shakespeare
I walked into the Michigan Theatre with “God, I Hate Shakespeare” from the musical “Something Rotten” stuck in my head. I don’t actually hate Shakespeare anymore. I used to, and while it’s still not my favorite type of show to see, I’ve come to have healthy appreciation for the significance of his works. But putting anyone who isn’t an Shakespeare fanatic in a theater for a three hour and 40 minute long show is bound to bring back some ancient grudges.
To its credit, the “National Theatre: Live in HD” performance at the Michigan Theatre of William Shakespeare’s “Antony & Cleopatra” was a modern reimagination of a classic, brilliantly executed and expertly designed. The play follows the love affair of Mark Antony (played by Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Cleopatra (played by Sophie Okonedo, “Christopher Robin”), taking place in modern day Egypt — Cleopatra’s domain of luxurious pools and dark ceramic rooms — and Rome — a collection of white marble war conference rooms and high tech televisions. As per the usual Shakespearean tragedy, chaos ensues and leaves everyone dead, with a few Romeo and Juliet-esque fake outs. I promise this isn’t a spoiler, since the plays starts and ends at Cleopatra’s funeral.
First and foremost, this show was long. I mean, the man in the aisle seat had his tennis shoes off. Restaurants were closed and your roommate was in bed by the time you got home.
What made the potentially excruciating and long experience engaging was the attention to detail. Every costume, piece of blocking and design element was thought out and symbolic. The designers stayed true to Shakespeare’s interest in contrast, constantly playing with colors and shadows, revealing underlying feelings, alliances and relationships to create an all around visually stunning show. Even the scene changes, which happened on a clockwise rotating stage symbolizing the passage of time, were executed to perfection.
The interpretation of such an old classic to a modern era did little to alter the story, but allowed for beautiful sets and costumes. Everything Okonedo wore was custom designed for her in this show and couture rather than period. Various Egyptian influences were recycled for certain looks, but her costumes for the most part were inspired by powerful modern women. One of her dresses was modeled after Beyoncé’s dress in Lemonade. The designer, Evie Gurney, in an interview played during the screening, felt that Beyoncé embodied the queen of the music industry and a perfect model for a present day Cleopatra.
Other modern touches also sparked interest: little touches of technology, military fighting style and weaponry, modern dances (never in my life would I picture Shakespeare characters flossing). Some of the original text, however, could not be weaved so easily into the present day. The few, seemingly inconsequential, meetings with the dark soothsayer and her poisonous snake seemed out of place in this modern world. Likewise, abrupt pronouncement of kingship took an audience not all that used to these types of declarations by surprise. Yes, Britain (where this play stemmed from) has royalty, but I don’t see Queen Elizabeth’s illicit lover coming out of the woodworks to steal the throne happening anytime soon.
While the scenic and lighting designs were visually stunning, the acting was overwhelming. It’s hard not to over-act in a Shakespeare show; how else are you supposed to give any meaning to what is practically a dead language? Okonedo’s first scene with Fiennes, as they are flirting and playing, is vivacious and engaging. But as the show continued in that direction, those outrageous choices soon turned characters into caricatures, making some of the most interesting parts of the show the parts with no dialogue at all. However, Okonedo convinced the audience of her perfect embodiment of the queen of the nile from the moment she sauntered onstage. A vision of beauty in her couture gowns, she was a force to be reckoned with.
While this show didn’t necessarily change my feelings on Shakespeare, what the National Theatre did with what it had was truly remarkable. The staging and design brought an ancient tale to life in a modern context, giving the play a new depth in a vastly different era, proving that, with the right storyteller, a story can have significance in any time period.