Sun and lovers

Antony and Cleopatra
Royal National Theatre (Olivier )

If "relevance" is what you look for in a Shakespeare text, this play has it in abundance. Dereliction of duty in the pursuit of sexual gratification has regularly pushed more important matters off our front pages in the past few months.

The story is as old as human behaviour - the contrary tugs of responsibility and pleasure assail most of us at some time; it simply matters less if others do not suffer in their thousands as a consequence.

But if the premise is recognisable enough, the casting of a modern actor as Antony still poses problems. Lover we understand - and politician, drunkard and unfaithful husband. But he is not simply a romantic figure for whom the world is well lost. This is an ambitious leader, a cavalry officer, a killer if necessary whose intensity in love is matched by military and political energy, for the moment subverted by Cleopatra's wiles.

Alan Rickman seems uncomfortable with both the passion and the language. There is something too lackadaisical about him. Ironically, his performance comes to life just as he is about to die, but it does not cure an imbalance at the centre of Sean Mathias's production.

It is Helen Mirren's evening. She is vital, mercurial, playful, manipulative and ironic. Her Cleopatra understands all too well the need for those in power, especially if they are female, to act a part. As a woman she becomes undignified in love, shrilly jealous of the younger Octavia, whom Antony marries for political reasons, but she never loses her nobility.

Of the rest of the cast, Finbar Lynch's Enobarbus is outstanding, convincingly military in bearing, but sybaritic and intelligent. His Antony will be worth seeing one day.

Tim Hatley's set makes the expected distinction between the gorgeous warmth and curving shapes of Egypt and the hard edge - shown literally by means of geometrically-cut perspex - of a pragmatic Rome. The Olivier's revolve successfully generates tension in speeding the movement of people during the swift changes of fortune in battle. The only mystery is the decision to dress the rebel Pomey and his followers in tribal plastic fringes.

Heather Neill

In repertory at the National Theatre. Tickets: 0171 452 3000.

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