Antony and Cleopatra Video Capsule Review: 1981, BBC

It’s Friday, so welcome to the second film in our six-week Friday Film Focus on Antony and Cleopatra. Each week, I’ll present a capsule review of an A&C video, with full reviews coming in a future podcast.

In 1980, as Jonathan Miller was beginning his tenure as the producer of the BBC Complete Works of Shakespeare in the series third season, he filmed Antony and Cleopatra, starring Colin Blakely as Antony and Jane Lapotaire as Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra, 1981 BBC production
Antony and Cleopatra, 1981 BBC production

As with the vast majority of the series, a great emphasis was put on a kind of faux-Elizabethan presentation. Thus, the costuming is a weird mixture of classic and Renaissance. And as is per usual with this series, the production is done on a soundstage, and thus the plays can be pretty stagey.

The production does contain some very strong characterizations. Blakely’s Antony comes off as grumpy, bitter; over the course of the play, he in turn becomes so pathetic that he nearly becomes unsympathetic. On the other hand, Lapotaire’s Cleopatra is more sincere, more serious, than what I’ve seen before (where she’s been the queen of performance); in fact, there are times when her mercurial changes feel desperate, almost unhinged.

Miller leaves out Act Three, Scene Ten, the immediate fallout of the naval Battle of Actium (that of the truly strange stage direction). Instead, Miller runs a scroll up the screen of Plutarch’s description of the battle, over a painting of the battle…under total silence. It didn’t work for me. There were moments, too, during which I did long for cuts, to bring the play down from its two-hour fifty-minute running time, especially in an Act Five that seemed to last forever.

The whole production feels like hits and misses. Good: The others ignoring the sober Octavian at the feast with Pompey hints at his motives for the rest of the play. Not-so-good: The framing of the shot of Antony receiving the news of Cleopatra’s death, with his back to the camera, it robs us of his reaction. This would give us a great comparison to how he received Fulvia’s death…but we don’t get it. Good: Cleopatra announcing her 60 ships primarily to spite Enobarbus. Not-so-good: The Clown’s attempt at comedy when delivering the asp to Cleopatra falls flat. You get the idea.

There’s a cliche that the last 30 seconds in every round are crucial to judges for a boxing match: win those 30 seconds and you’ll get the decision. I feel like a boxing judge. That Act Five just draggggggggggged. I really can’t recommend this one.

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