The story follows the doomed relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Parthian War to Antony’s defeat at Actium and Cleopatra's suicide. The political backdrop in Rome – which casts such a far-reaching shadow over their affair – focuses on the painful evolution from republic to empire and the power struggle of the ruling second triumvirate – Octavius Caesar, Lepidus and Antony with their chief opponent Pompey. Their warring will decide the fate of the entire Roman world and ultimately install Octavius Caesar as the first Roman emperor.
This production is set on a cleverly constructed stage designed by Robin Don which perfectly contrasts the opulence and sensuality of Alexandria with the stark and austere politicking of Rome. A striking self-contained moveable platform and vivid imagery are used to suggest the many changes in geographical location throughout the narrative.
Susie Trayling is mesmerising as the famed Cleopatra, and plays the un-apologetically contradictory character both with the power and gravitas of the Queen of all Egypt and the vanity, vulnerability and despair of a young lover. Her final speech “I am fire, and air; my other elements… I give to baser life" is electrifying, and her death scene heartbreaking.
As Antony Owen Oakeshott commands a strong presence, and conveys well the contradictions inherent in a man who is both the lovelorn and irresponsible lover and the fierce and dedicated soldier. His despair at his professional disgrace and defeat at Actium is very real.
There are many other stand-out performances; Piers Wehner is excellent as the young Octavius, subtly menacing and ruthless but at times also compassionate. Jonathan Oliver[ as Agrippa, and [Simeon Moore as Enobarbus provide impassioned support.
Special mention must go to Sophia Nomvete, oustanding as faithful hand-maiden Charmian, who literally lights up the stage whenever she appears. Nomvete with Camilla Arfwedson as Iras, Oliver Wilson as Alexas and Ian Midlane as the eunuch Mardian perfectly frame Cleopatra in her opulent surroundings.
The costumes designed by Juliet Shillingford and lighting of David W Kidd lend a 20th century feel without detracting from the epic historical context. The accomplished direction is by Patrick Sandford. This is likely to prove another resounding success for the Nuffield Theatre, following on from its previous critically-acclaimed productions, of The House of Bernarda Alba and A Streetcar Named Desire.