A word of avuncular advice: when you pay an exorbitant amount for a Shakespeare production in London, do your research.
Before parting with £120 for two tickets to see Antony and Cleopatra at the National, I had followed my own advice, but only halfheartedly.
All I had done was scan the reviews, which had all been gasping with delight, and there I was last night, perched in a stone-like seat designed according to the Suvorov principle of “train hard, fight easy”.
If for Stanislavsky the theatre began at the cloakroom, the NT show began with the captions displayed on either side of the stage, saying that “this production is captioned for the benefit of the deaf, deafened and hard of hearing”. At first I thought ‘deafened’ was redundant, but I realised in due course that the sound effects had just such an effect.
Now you would have thought that at my advanced age I’d know better than to trust critics. Had I been less credulous I would have realised that this production is but another exercise in vulgar vandalism.
The advertising poster showed the eponymous characters wearing neutral costumes, which cleverly disguised the fact that the production was in modern dress. Most Shakespeare plays are these days.
I struggle to understand why. That is, I can’t identify any fathomable artistic reason for this abomination. Other reasons are limpidly transparent, all based on the director’s ideology and hubris.
The underlying statement seems to say that Shakespeare is timeless and – that dread word – relevant. In the past, directors used to rely on the sublime text to reconfirm Shakespeare’s transcendence. Today’s lot must feel the Bard needs help, for otherwise the paying public might miss the point.
The problem is that theatre even at its best demands at least some suspension of disbelief.
We must accept that the sketchily painted backdrop is indeed Ranevskaya’s cherry orchard; that Nora’s doll’s house has four walls, rather than just the three we can see; that Hamlet is actually only thinking about being or not being, rather than speaking out loud.
The play may be classicist, romantic, modern, absurdist or surreal but, if it’s written by a great playwright and staged with talent, taste and sensitivity, we’ll accept the narrative as life unfolding before us.
There may be an initial effort involved, but no longer than for a minute or two. After that our lives morph into the action; the passive viewer becomes an active participant, not just a chap expecting an entertaining night out.
When the text is sublime, most of the job has already been done. The greater the play, the lesser the original effort required to believe it.
All the production staff have to do is refrain from doing harm, implicitly taking some sort of theatrical Hippocratic oath. If they have genuine talent, they can add something to the play. But their first responsibility is not to subtract from it, not to make suspension of disbelief difficult.
Here I’m acutely sensitive to the possible shortcomings of my own imagination, which must be lamentably inferior to the critics’ own powers. For I found it impossible to believe I was looking at Octavius Caesar, when all I saw was a young black man wearing a double-breasted suit and moccasins with no socks.
That sort of thing goes over big in SW1, or rather used to in the past, when it seemed ‘cool’. But here we have this lad with his accent some 500 miles north of SW1, delivering lines like: “Let not the piece of virtue which is set betwixt us, as the cement of our love to keep it builded, be the ram to batter the fortress of it.”
Doesn’t the director realise how tasteless this incongruity is? The costume doesn’t have to be Roman or for that matter Elizabethan; it can be neutral and generic.
But we’re supposed to be looking at the Roman emperor, not a mock-Sloanie layabout. All I saw was a grossly miscast actor who couldn’t enunciate his lines properly.
The actress playing Cleopatra was black too, as were half the supporting cast. My literal mind struggled to get around the artistic message being conveyed there.
The protagonist, as her surviving busts show, wasn’t black at all. She was a Ptolemaic monarch of Greek origin, and as aristocratic as they came at the time. No doubt her Greek and Latin sounded as patrician as she was – Cleopatra may have used sex as a political tool, but she certainly didn’t sound like a London slapper one could meet in a City wine bar.
And, in this case, not a good-looking slapper at that, and I’m not talking about the combination of lines and curves the actress possesses. A real actress may not be a beautiful woman, but she’ll make us believe she is.
For example, Vanessa Redgrave was almost 50 when she played Cleopatra. And yet her mastery was such that we saw a beautiful young woman who bewitched Antony, and Caesar before him.
Sophie Okonedo is roughly the same age now, but one couldn’t believe great men would fall under her spell. She came across as rather common mutton straining to act like tasty lamb. And to her credit she honestly didn’t even pretend to be regal.
If the director wanted to use this occasion to strike a blow for racial integration, I’m sure there are cries of approval to be heard in London’s better postcodes. Yet in aesthetic heaven, there’s only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Transsexualism got an airing too: Agrippa, that stern warrior, was played by a woman. That was supposed to mean something profound, but I’m not sure what.
Ralph Fiennes, the good actor playing Antony, was the only cast member who could deliver his lines comprehensively. In fact, he was the reason I wanted to see the play in the first place: having seen his Prospero a few seasons ago, I knew he could do Shakespeare well.
But the director Simon Godwin wouldn’t let him. Rather than coming across as a dramatic hero with the odd touch of sardonic humour, Fiennes played a vaudeville comedian at heart who occasionally had to pretend something tragic was happening in his life.
But at least one could understand what he was saying, which in the context of that production was no mean achievement.
And speaking of production, the usual bag of tricks one nowadays expects in a Shakespeare play was dragged on and emptied with relish. Rather than a great play, we saw a multi-media presentation, complete with radar scanners, computer screens, jets roaring overhead, the whirring of helicopter rotors and giant backdrop videos of rioting Africans.
The production was supposed to last three and a half hours. We lasted one and a half, and even that was going some.
As a civically responsible person, I felt like reporting that act of gross vandalism. But our arbiters of taste all thought the production was brilliant. So I felt like a burglary victim in today’s Britain: nobody would have been interested in my complaint.