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Antony and Cleopatra (1974)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Antony and Cleopatra (1974)
ATV for ITV, tx. 28/7/1974, 140 mins, colour
DirectorJon Scoffield
Original ProductionTrevor Nunn
Production CompanyATV
PlayWilliam Shakespeare
DesignerMike Bailey
MusicGuy Woolfenden

Cast: Janet Suzman (Cleopatra); Richard Johnson (Antony); Patrick Stewart (Enobarbus); Corin Redgrave (Octavius); Tim Pigott-Smith (Proculeius); Rosemary McHale (Charmian)

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The decline and fall of Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Roman general Mark Antony, whose fateful romance has huge implications at a time of great political uncertainty.

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Sourced from a celebrated 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company production originally directed by Trevor Nunn, this ATV adaptation was broadcast two years later. It was something of a landmark in television Shakespeare in that director John Scoffield specifically attempted to devise an intelligently stylized visual language appropriate to the small screen. Here, sets are reduced to background shades of colour (blinding white for Rome, sultry yellow for Egypt, black for the inside of Cleopatra's monument) and sound effects are just as important as onscreen props in conveying a sense of place.

It was staged almost entirely in medium to tight close-up, with a few cutaways to deliberately out-of-focus impressions of distant action, creating the effect of a mirage. This was intended to throw attention on on the actors' delivery of the original text. In this, Nunn and Scoffield were well served by an outstanding cast. Janet Suzman's Cleopatra stressed the character's capricious sensuality (by all accounts she was more effective on television than on stage), while Richard Johnson's Mark Antony was appropriately world-weary, his grizzled, grey-flecked beard conveying memories of better days, though a twinkle in his eye suggests that he hasn't entirely lost a love of life.

But the lion's share of the plaudits went to the then little-known Patrick Stewart. His Enobarbus is one of the richest interpretations of the character on record, his gradual descent into madness and desperation perfectly mirroring the play's own narrative and emotional arc - he's particularly good at conveying the wrenching sense of betrayal when Enobarbus decides to switch sides. Critical opinion was more divided when it came to Corin Redgrave's Octavius Caesar, his coldness occasionally appearing at odds with the lines he has to deliver, especially when he has to express sadness over Antony's death. Future star Ben Kingsley appears in a minor role as Thidias, the hapless messenger who ends up at the sharp end of Antony's whip.

Compared with Spread of the Eagle (BBC, 1963) and Jonathan Miller's BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation (1981), the text has been quite heavily cut, with Pompey in particular reduced to a few brief verbal references. But it arguably gets closer to the heart of the play than any other British screen adaptation (very much including Charlton Heston's 1972 feature film), and looks forward to other outstanding television adaptations of Nunn's work for the RSC - most notably Macbeth (ITV, 1979) and Othello (BBC, 1990).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A Roman welcome (4:14)
2. Caesar's messenger (3:34)
3. A queen's death (4:11)
Antony and Cleopatra (1981)
Spread of the Eagle, The (1963)
Kingsley, Sir Ben (1942-)
Antony and Cleopatra On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television