Stagy Shakespeare on Videotape. Lots and lots of lying down acting in this 1981 BBC Antony and Cleopatra.
The costumes are clever and logical in overall conceptual terms. These people are not wearing ancient Roman and Egyptian costume. They are not wearing Northern European Renaissance costume either. They are wearing what Northern European people c. 1600 probably imagined looked vaguely “eastern”. They are dressed from big hamper that is probably labelled “Venetian and further”.
So what we’re getting is neither Classical nor Renaissance but a Renaissance idea of the Classical. It also demonstrates that the BBC Shakespeare series became considerably more thoughtful and imaginative after Jonathan Miller took over at the helm.
The battle scenes (or rather, the scenes with dialogue that pertains to imminent battle) are a little distractingly kitted out insofar as the officer caste favour very tight red vinyl shorts. The Battle of Actium seems to have been fought between rival factions of an S&M cycling club.
One strangely ‘eastern’ feature of this production, which reflects Western European early modern orientalism, is the amount of lying down acting that takes place. Nobody in this production stands up if they see a chance to lie down. It’s a supine sort of a world, that flatters the kind of prevalent imagining of the East by the West that assumes that the further east you go, the softer the cushions get. Edward Said must have been an uncredited advisor to this version.
Established character actor Colin Blakely is Antony. You’ve seen him in any number of things. Try, if you can, to see him as McGann in a 1980s BBC adaptions of Pinter’s The Birthday Party alongside Pinter himself as Goldberg. Blakely is a weather eaten old bruiser with a face that tells its own story. He’s shorter than most of the cast which means that he has to be louder and ‘bigger’ by way of repeated assertion – a circumstance that makes its own eloquent rhetocial point. If he is out-acted by Jane Lapotaire’s Cleopatra – well, that’s pretty much the whole point of the play. Cleopatra is meant to be better at acting than Antony, her sense of timing, her sense of humour, and her consummate sense of theatrical performance mean that any successful production of Antony and Cleopatra leaves us with this sense of imbalance. Antony can’t even kill himself properly, and he is mightier in Cleopatra’s imagination than he ever can be in life. I’ll never forget a lecture by the late great Wilbur Sanders, based on critical work co-authored with Howard Jacobson, which argued that the line ‘Gentle Madam, no’ in reply to Cleopatra’s asking whether there was ever such a man as the dead Antony she’s just described, is in fact the most important line in the play.
And as for the other triumvirs, we have the absolutely perfect Ian Charleson as Octavius Caesar, providing the very model of querulous and charmless efficiency, a character everybody knows will be the unlovely last man standing. Rather wonderfully, taking the part of the ‘other’ spare triumvir there is the very great and very elderly Edmond Knight, most famous for his outstanding Fluellen in Olivier’s Henry V. He’s quite delicious as a version of that fussy great uncle you eventually see get very drunk at a party and whom you can never thereafter look at in quite the same way ever again.
In a small but important role note with sadness Darien Angadi. You can see Angadi give performances of compelling vulnerability in I Claudius and Blake’s Seven. His Alexas is a more suave and knowing character, someone who seems to know more of Cleopatra’s purpose than anyone else, even Iras and Charmian. Darien Angadi hanged himself not long after this production was filmed.
And then there’s Emrys James as Enobarbus, one of the most remarkable Roman roles that Shakespeare created – even if his best speech is cribbed from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch. I have trouble watching James objectively, because, superb as he is, he reminds me too much of Val Widdowson, who is no longer with us. Emrys James had a deliciously expressive voice, and lets vowels roll around in his mouth with suggestive relish. But I keep remembering Val Widdowson as I see him, most particularly Val’s valedictory soliloquy as Enobarbus which could (did) break your heart. When Val’s version of Enobarbus judged and condemned himself on stage, he was the loneliest man in the universe.
I played Lepidus in that production. I played Lepidus, the clown who brings in “the worm” at the end, and the odd “sad captain” or two. It wasn’t a great production, but Val was magnificent, and worth the price of admission (not that the price of admission would have been much – for a 1980s student production).
Here again, is Val Widdowson’s obituary