Age cannot wither Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees, nor custom stale her infinite variety.
"Give me my robe; put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me…"
Renowned stage director Trevor Nunn brings one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable tragedies (is that a paradox?) to life in a stage production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has been transformed into a television production under the direction of John Scoffield. The results are mixed, since this production carries the flaws of both forms of presentation, but it is endowed with stellar performances.
Facts of the Case
Famed Roman soldier Marc Antony (Richard Johnson, The Haunting, Julius Caesar) lived and died centuries before the dictum "make love, not war" came into being, but he is embracing it nevertheless—or, more specifically, he is embracing Cleopatra (Janet Suzman, The Draughtsman's Contract), the bewitching Queen of Egypt, instead of attending to his martial duties. When Pompeius Sextus threatens Rome, Antony parts unwillingly from his mistress to form an uneasy alliance with snotty young Octavius Caesar (Corin Redgrave, The Forsyte Saga) to defend the city. As a gesture of goodwill he even marries Caesar's sister, Octavia, and plans to mend his ways, even though plain-spoken soldier Enobarbus (Patrick Stewart, X-Men) predicts that both these alliances will end poorly.
Once Pompey has been defeated, Antony is unable to resist the allure of Cleopatra and returns to Egypt, abandoning Octavia. When the inevitable falling out with Caesar occurs, he finds that his mistress—though politically savvy in her own right—is not always a reliable ally in battle. When a sea battle turns to disaster and Antony faces defeat, he must face up to the consequences of having allowed his judgment to be overruled by his passion. For her part, Cleopatra must decide whether to remain loyal to the man she loves or to forge an alliance of her own with Caesar in order to protect her country and her children.
Antony and Cleopatra is an unusual tragedy in that its protagonists start out flawed and gradually grow to heroic stature over the course of the play. At the beginning of the play and of this televised production, the lovers are acting foolish, immature, and self-indulgent, playing piggyback and carousing, ignoring their responsibilities. But over the course of the play, as their eminence draws them deep into political wrangling and conflicted loyalties, we see them cast aside their revelry and develop more considered, dignified, and admirable qualities. One could argue that Antony develops less in this respect than does Cleopatra, since he seems rarely to make a wise decision and bungles even his own suicide attempt (I trust I am not giving too much away here, since this is a Shakespearean tragedy), whereas she truly does achieve queenly bearing and becomes a courageous heroine. In this production, however, as embodied by Richard Johnson, Antony is a man worthy of his royal mistress despite his occasional poor judgment. Johnson, whose rich, husky voice caresses the iambic pentameter, gives us an Antony who has true greatness in him but also a fundamental love of drinking, carousing, and Cleopatra herself; he is torn between two powerful impulses, and despite his flaws he makes us believe that he wants to be a valorous soldier. He is a hero we can relate to, and this, I think, draws us more deeply into his tragedy.
Cleopatra is a difficult role for any actress to live up to due to her legendary seductive quality and her "infinite variety"—her paradoxical mixture of childishness and queenliness, selfishness and intelligence, arrogance and whimsy. Janet Suzman's performance here took some time to grow on me, due in part to the distraction of her truly abominable makeup and wig, but well before the midway point I had been won over. Suzman's performance is both nimble and heartfelt; her moods shift like quicksilver, but every one rings true. She makes us believe in Cleopatra as a real woman, and she convinces us that even without great beauty (for the historical Cleopatra is known to have seduced with her mind rather than her physical gifts) she is a beguiling presence. She and Johnson's Antony are beautifully matched: Both are charismatic, bold, and wryly self-aware as befits middle-aged lovers, yet they view each other with wonder and delight. Although it does not seem so at first, we come to recognize that theirs is truly a magnificent love, one that we believe really could forge—or topple—nations.
The cast that supports our two title characters is a strong one, but special mention must be made of Patrick Stewart—another magnificent voice—as Enobarbus. Nearly unrecognizable in curly hair and beard, Stewart brings a colorful presence to the character who serves the function of a chorus as well as sometime confidant of both principals. His twinkly humor and hearty bearing make him a plausible soldier and drinking partner for Antony, yet he offers a clear-eyed perspective on unfolding events that other characters cannot. His famous speech in which he describes Cleopatra's dazzling progress down the Nile is thrilling: The wonder and awe in his delivery evoke the same sensations within us as we picture the scene he describes. Stewart's performance brings nuance and warmth to the character and makes him as memorable as the two leads—a major accomplishment.
The play as presented here is edited down, sometimes fairly drastically, from the complete text; the character of Pompey never even comes on stage, and so much of the Pompey material is omitted that I was left unsure as to how that rather significant plot development had been resolved. Other cuts are not so drastic, although Shakespeare lovers will note the absence of some beloved lines and some tightening up of many scenes and speeches. However, the text cuts mean that the production can be performed unhurriedly in under three hours, and on balance I prefer this method of keeping the running time down to the frequent alternative: hearing actors race through speeches as if trying to beat the clock. Most live and film productions of Shakespeare that I've seen take the latter approach, as if high energy alone can thrust the meaning of the lines across to the audience even if we can't distinguish the actual words. This production will thus seem slow to many viewers, but it's refreshing to be able to understand the dialogue and process it, and once you grow accustomed to the rhythm of this production, it's quite effective.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Far less successful, however, is the decision to film most of this performance in close-ups. Certainly, close-up shots are a definite advantage television offers over theatrical performances, but here they seem to be used to obscure the stage set as much as to offer a closer look at the actors. Often there are no establishing shots when scenes change; we simply cut from one close-up to another, which is extremely disorienting. Likewise, when characters are shown to be arriving from a distance, they are simply filmed out of focus. I couldn't suppress the feeling that director Scoffield was trying his hardest to hide the fact that this performance was taking place on a stage. The cumulative effect is quite annoying; I feel as if I'm being pushed up in actors' faces in shot after shot, then thrust into another scene without any clue as to location or time.
The use of these relentless close-ups also reveals another substantial distraction: the theatrical makeup and hairpieces, which look patently fake at such close quarters. As I mentioned before, Suzman in particular suffers in this regard: Her "tawny" complexion is a muddy yet metallic makeup base that looks like an early, failed experiment by Auric Goldfinger, and her thick false eyelashes and coral lipstick are gruesomely dated. Her wig is so coarse it might be of horsehair—which may be more historically accurate than the other actresses' wigs but is scarcely attractive. Likewise, I found myself looking for the signs of spirit gum where actors' beards had been applied and trying to determine if Antony's shaggy, grey-streaked mane was fake. Fortunately, the fine quality of the performances took my mind off such trifling matters for the most part, but other viewers may find them annoying as well.
The theatrical pedigree of this production is also felt in the acting, which tends toward the declamatory. Although the performances are excellent, and actors do combine their bigger moments with some nicely intimate, realistic delivery of asides and quieter dialogue, viewers accustomed to film acting and not stage acting may be startled and put off by the large scale of some of these speeches. In some ways the performances are too big for the small screen, despite their considerable merit.
Shakespeare lovers and fans of live theater will probably enjoy this Antony and Cleopatra more than the average filmgoer. The fact that this production was shot on video may also be a detriment for movie fans, and indeed the video quality, though quite respectable considering its age and the limitations of the source elements and lighting, isn't anything like what we have seen when Shakespeare is brought to the big screen. Grain is only intermittently present, and clarity is excellent (except when Scoffield smears the lens with Vaseline), but there is a flatness to many scenes in both color and contrast. Audio is clear and stereo separation admirable, but volume varies greatly both between and within scenes, which can be problematic when the language is often unfamiliar.
Overall I find this a strong production, but its appeal, I imagine, will be limited. Those who are not avid Shakespeare buffs or fans of the actors should probably rent before purchasing. The lack of extras is an added disincentive to a blind purchase.
Lions Gate is commended for preserving a worthy production of a great work of literature, but Ms. Suzman's makeup artist and hairdresser are hereby sentenced to three to five years in a high-security cosmetology program.
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