The Cleopatras – Episode Eight

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The end of the previous episode made it quite clear that the power dynamic between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was weighted entirely in Cleopatra’s favour.  Indeed you have to feel a little sorry for Mark Anthony as he finds himself obsessed and dazzled by Cleopatra’s beauty and becomes her pliant and willing slave.  Whether Michele Newell has done enough to convince us of Cleopatra’s mesmerising qualities is open to debate – personally I found Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe (Francesca Gonshaw), to be much more alluring, even though she only had the merest fraction of Newell’s screentime

When Cleopatra asks Mark Anthony to do her a tiny favour and kill her meddlesome sister it did raise my hopes that Gonshaw would have a more substantial role in this final episode, but alas she’s dealt with very abruptly (like most of the deaths in the series, it’s brief and almost abstract).

Christopher Neame continues to chew the scenery in an alarming way – witness his reaction early on when he realises that Cleopatra doesn’t want to sleep with him that night – and it’s interesting to compare his performance with that of Robert Hardy.  Hardy’s Caesar was equally as besotted, but he played it in a much more undemonstrative way.  Neame lacks any sort of subtlety which means he begins to grate after a while.

Octavian (Rupert Frazer) offers Mark Anthony a deal – the world divided up between them.  Anthony agrees (although with more than a hint that this won’t be enough to satisfy him).  Octavian seems quite content with his half though and proposes a way to cement the deal – he offers Anthony his sister Octavia’s (Karen Archer) hand in marriage (he agrees).  This sparks an imperial bout of sulking from Cleopatra …..

Needless to say they kiss and makeup and when Anthony decides to divorce Octavia it puts him on a collision course with Octavian, who’s more than a little miffed at the slight his sister has suffered.

Amongst the decadence at Cleopatra’s court, one man – his oldest friend Ahenobarbus (Matthew Long) – stands apart.  He views Cleopatra as a malign influence and has the nerve to tell her so to her face.  Before Ahenobarbus takes his leave, he tells Mark Anthony that because he loves Cleopatra “there’s no saving you from doing what legendary lovers do, dying for love. I shall die of something much more commonplace, like fever. But then I’m not the sort of person of whom legends are made.”

Although The Cleopatras ends with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang (a little of Neame’s overacting goes a long way) overall there’s a great deal to enjoy across the eight episodes.   Richard Griffiths, Ian McNeice, David Horovitch and Adam Bareham all made excellent – and very different – Kings of Egypt, whilst Robert Hardy was wonderful as the urbane Caesar (who it’s true had more than a touch of Seigfried Farnon about him).  During the series many actors flit on and off, some – such as Morris Perry and John Bennett – are memorably good, whilst others are memorably …. not so good, but we’ll spare their blushes.

The Cleopatras is a strange production which asks a great deal of the audience.   I think that in order to connect with it you have to embrace its highly theatrical nature.  Battles, riots and other major occurrences happen off screen and the sets are minimal (with scenes often played against plain black backgrounds).  One weakness is that too much was crammed in across the eight episodes, so at times it can feel rather repetitive – there’s an autocratic ruler, someone gets poisoned, the mob starts to riot, etc.

But although it’s a curio, it’s definitely worth seeking out.  It may sometimes baffle and frustrate, but it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

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The Cleopatras – Episode Seven

cleopatras 07

Cleopatra has a bombshell for Caesar – she’s pregnant.  He’s obviously delighted and after the child (as she predicted, a boy) is born, she visits Rome.  Cleopatra’s self absorption is made very plain within the opening minutes of this episode.  Her two maids, who are completely sycophantic in her presence, have a very different opinion of her when she’s not around.

Ammonius (Frank Duncan) is the Roman official who’s been tasked with preparing Cleopatra’s Roman villa.  When he mentions that he was a great admirer of her father, he receives a polite but cool response.  After she’s left the room her maids tell him that he shouldn’t “harp on about her father too much, she didn’t care for him. She cares only for herself. We recommend flattery, you can’t lay it on too thick.”

It’s interesting that Caesar later tells her that “you’re an intelligent woman, you like plain speaking. And you hate meaningless flattery.”  According to her maids she loves flattery – so who is closer to the truth?  Of course, the fact that Caesar tells her to her face that she hates flattery is a form of flattery in itself.  Caesar doesn’t seem very manipulative – Hardy plays him as an affable sort of chap – so maybe he’s sincere in what he says.

The only scene between Caesar and Mark Anthony is highly entertaining.  Caesar tells him of his desire to be crowned king, but can he persuade the republican loving Roman citizens?  Neame’s Anthony is full of boyish enthusiasm for his plans and exuberantly tells him so.  Compared to Hardy’s laconic Caesar, Neame’s Anthony is much more hyperactive.  Like some of the other performances throughout the series it’s not a subtle one, but there’s a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from watching him chew the scenery.

For all Cleopatra’s self-centeredness, she did seem to be genuinely in love with Caesar – and he with her – and she takes the news of his assassination hard.  When Mark Anthony presents himself to her, she wonders why he “didn’t die protecting him? Or die with him?”  Mark Anthony’s equally as upset as her though, as is made plan as Neame full-throttles his way through the scene.

Familiar faces (and voices) who turn up in this episode include Geoffrey Chater as Perigenes, a plain-speaking Egyptian official.  Amongst his many credits he had a memorable recurring role as Bishop, opposite Edward Woodward in Callan.  John Moffatt, as Quintus Dellius, might not have been such a familiar face, but he was a highly skilled radio actor, playing the role of Hercule Poirot over several decades.

With Mark Anthony and Octavian victorious, Cleopatra should be glad that Mark Anthony is now ruler of half the world – but that’s not enough for her.  Julius Caesar ruled the world and she wants Mark Anthony to do the same ………