The Royal Shakespeare Company brings this classic play to the small screen, an experience helped immensely by many familiar faces.
Summarizing Shakespeare, of course, is an exercise in futility, but here is the basic plot of the play: Marc Antony (Richard Johnson) is in Egypt, cavorting with the queen Cleopatra (Janet Suzman). He and his men are having way too much fun to follow the orders of the Emperor Octavius Caesar (Corin Redgrave, Vanessa and Lynn's brother) from Rome.
Antony is ordered back, where a deal is struck that he marry Caesar's sister Octavia (Mary Rutherford) and carry the Roman banner into many needed battles. Of course, his travels always take him back to Egypt, and the arms of Cleopatra. After this affront to the emperor, Caesar decides to war against Antony, whose armies are now hollow shells of themselves. Antony and Cleopatra's love cannot seem to hold up in the face of the impending doom, and Cleopatra strikes a behind the scenes bargain with Caesar.
In what he thinks is his last battle, Antony somehow manages to drive back Caesar's troops, but his world crumbles anyway after his right hand man Enobarbus (Patrick Stewart) deserts him, and he is notified that Cleopatra is dead (although she is not).
Because of assorted theatrical forays and reading, I am familiar with Shakespearean language, and can get the general meaning of his scenes. "Antony and Cleopatra" is not a work I was familiar with, aside from the title, but I found many similarities to both "Romeo and Juliet," and even the latter story about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty. The film itself is actually shot on video on an interior set. Scoffield's camera often hides this fact, but he does resort to too many close-ups from time to time. The running time is well over two and a half hours, so I imagine the play is filmed as it was written. The stage sets are impressive and expansive, giving the actors plenty of room to move about.
It is sad that Richard Johnson is probably best known for his appearance in Lucio Fulci's "Zombie." He was very good in a supporting role in "Khartoum," and he is excellent here. While Suzman plays Cleopatra a little over the top on occasion, I liked her physical portrayal. She is not Elizabeth Taylor, but a more harsh and older queen, finding love in what would be the end of her life. Corin Redgrave is perfect as Octavius Caesar, I liked watching him even in scenes where he had very few lines. His regal reaction to the drunken celebration of his sister's marriage to Antony is priceless, but his character contains more than enough menace to render Caesar a force to be feared.
In the supporting cast, Patrick Stewart is very good as Enobarbus, addressing the camera here and there. "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"'s Joe Marcell is admirable as Antony's servant Eros. It is interesting to spot him as just another extra in the first half of the play, and watching his character develop to the point where a despondent Antony orders Eros to murder him after hearing of Cleopatra's (fake) death. Future Oscar winner Ben Kingsley is in a couple of scenes as one of Caesar's messengers, Thidias. Stewart and Kingsley both sport full heads of hair, which is disarming at first.
I never read the play, but this version of Antony and Cleopatra manages to move and entertain the viewer. This is good filmed Shakespeare, not up to the dizzying experience of Roman Polanski's "Macbeth," but it does stand on its own. I do recommend it, forsooth! (* * * *) out of five stars.