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Antony and Cleopatra (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Antony and Cleopatra (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 8/5/1981, 170 mins, colour
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerColin Lowrey
Music byStephen Oliver

Cast: Colin Blakely (Antony); Jane Lapotaire (Cleopatra); Ian Charleson (Octavius Caesar); Emrys James (Enobarbus); Janet Key (Charmian); Esmond Knight (Lepidus); Donald Sumpter (Pompeius); Lynn Farleigh (Octavia)

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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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The first of Jonathan Miller's productions for the BBC Television Shakespeare project to be recorded (although not the first to be broadcast), this took a typically individual approach to Shakespeare's elegiac Roman-Egyptian tragedy, with design, casting and interpretation consciously breaking with tradition. Unlike the cycle's earlier Julius Caesar (tx. 11/2/1979), no attempt was made at recreating even a token impression of ancient Rome: the look favoured by Miller and designer Colin Lowrey being inspired instead by the work of sixteenth-century Italian Mannerist painter Paolo Veronese.

Both title roles were cast decisively against both physical and temperamental type. The stocky, balding Colin Blakely is far from a traditional Mark Antony (Miller described his interpretation as "a rugby forward in one of those Midlands sporting clubs who's just beginning to fail"). He stomps around palaces and army tents like a sore-headed bear, dimly conscious that he is the architect of his own downfall but too impassioned with Cleopatra and the lure of an alternative to military life to pay heed to countless warnings.

Similarly, Jane Lapotaire makes no attempt to resemble the sensual, jet-coiffed Cleopatra of legend, preferring to chime with the known historical record, which would have established her as a middle-aged woman whose power came from her regal status rather than her built-in allure. This approach serves to emphasise Cleopatra's underlying emotional fragility, and even goes some way towards justifying her notorious capriciousness.

The supporting cast took a similarly unconventional approach, with Ian Charleson's Octavius Caesar presented as a stern moralist instead of the usual power-mad imperialist warrior, while Emrys James' Enobarbus challenges the usual view of the character as an essentially upright man brought down by unfortunate circumstances beyond his control: instead, Miller saw him as "a sleazy braggart who's corrupted by hanging on to the skirts of a great man and living vicariously off his prestige".

But this production as a whole is less satisfying than its two television predecessors, lacking both the self-conscious monumentality of The Spread of the Eagle (BBC, 1963) or the hyper-stylised abstraction of ITV's 1974 version of Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare Company production. By playing down the spectacle (the Battle of Actium is deleted in its entirety, replaced by scrolling text sourced from Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, Shakespeare's main source), Miller domesticates the tragedy - his Antony and Cleopatra works on the human level, but the epic dimension is missing.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A strumpet's fool (3:09)
2. Roman diplomacy (3:32)
3. Antony's death (5:18)
Antony and Cleopatra (1974)
Blakely, Colin (1930-1987)
Charleson, Ian (1949-1990)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Antony and Cleopatra On Screen
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)