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Antony and Cleopatra On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's elegiac romance

Main image of Antony and Cleopatra On Screen

First produced at around 1606-07 and first published in the First Folio of 1623, Antony and Cleopatra was sourced from Sir Thomas North's Parallel Lives (1579). In many ways a middle-aged counterpart to Romeo and Juliet, this also depicts a couple head over heels in love, but with the major difference that they're not only middle-aged adults but both in positions of immense political power: Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt while Mark Antony controls a third of the Roman empire, effectively comprising the entire Western world. One of Shakespeare's most successful blends of the personal and the political, Antony and Cleopatra has accordingly been given a wide range of interpretations from the epic to the intimate.

Despite its reputation and visual potential, Antony and Cleopatra has been filmed surprisingly rarely in Britain, with just one feature film and three television adaptations. The feature film was only tenuously British, being a Swiss/Spanish/UK co-production from 1972, directed by and starring Charlton Heston with an international (heavily Anglo-Spanish) cast. Emphasising spectacle at the expense of subtlety (even to the point of recycling shots from the 1959 Ben-Hur, in which Heston had starred some thirteen years earlier!), this adaptation shows little feeling for the emotions at the core of the story, and is torpedoed by the lack of chemistry between Heston and South African actress Hildegard Neil, who is arguably miscast as Cleopatra.

The play fared rather better on television, with all three productions having virtues of their own. The first made up the last three episodes of Spread of the Eagle, an ambitious attempt at adapting the three Roman plays (Coriolanus and Julius Caesar being the others) into a chronologically-reshuffled series of nine 50-minute episodes directed by Peter Dews and broadcast by the BBC between 3 March and 28 June 1963. Keith Michell and Mary Morris played Antony and Cleopatra respectively, and the combined 150-minute running time permitted a surprisingly full presentation of the text given the use to which it was put, with Clifford Hatts' sets achieving an impressive sense of scale.

Eleven years later, a production for ATV took a very different interpretative route. Directed by Jon Scoffield and based on Trevor Nunn's 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company production with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman, it was one of the first television Shakespeare broadcasts to make a genuine effort at reinterpreting the play for a different medium, focusing on the smaller-scale, more intimate scenes and making heavy use of close-ups against highly stylised backgrounds. It was broadcast on 28 July 1974.

The third British television adaptation was broadcast on 8 May 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller, it is generally regarded as being one of the more disappointing efforts in the BBC Television Shakespeare project, visually intriguing (the paintings of Paolo Veronese inspired the sets and costumes) but dramatically flat, despite strong performances by Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire (who played Charmian in Charlton Heston's film). An accompanying Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was broadcast three days earlier and presented by the journalist and broadcaster Anna Raeburn.

And, as a footnote, there's Carry On Cleo (1964, d. Gerald Thomas), which cheekily cites Shakespeare in the opening credits, though the immortal line "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!" doesn't seem to appear in any of the Folio editions of the original text. There are various take-offs of Shakespeare, though Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar clearly provided the major inspiration.


1972, Switzerland / Spain / UK, d. Charlton Heston

The Spread of the Eagle: 7. The Serpent, BBC, tx. 14/6/1963
The Spread of the Eagle: 8. The Alliance, BBC, tx. 21/6/1963
The Spread of the Eagle: 9. The Monument, BBC, tx. 28/6/1963
ITV, tx. 28/7/74, d. John Scoffield (from Trevor Nunn's RSC production)
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 8/5/1981, d. Jonathan Miller

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 5/5/1981 , p. Anna Raeburn

Other References
Carry On Cleo, d. Gerald Thomas, 1964

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Carry On Cleo (1964)

Carry On Cleo (1964)

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Thumbnail image of Antony and Cleopatra (1974)

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Thumbnail image of Antony and Cleopatra (1981)

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Thumbnail image of Spread of the Eagle, The (1963)

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