Monday, 26 March 2012

Antony and Cleopatra (1965)

By William Shakespeare (c1606)
Old Vic Theatre, London, September 1965

Helen Mirren has played Cleopatra three times. It’s a role she’s made her own, but not one which has won her universal acclaim. Her last assault on the part, in 1998 at London’s National Theatre, brought some of the worst notices of her career. Nicholas de Jongh, writing in the Evening Standard, expected to find in Mirren and her Antony (Alan Rickman) a couple ‘whose epic passion proves the death of them’. Instead, he complained, ‘they rose to erotic ardour… with little more enthusiasm than a pair of glumly non-mating pandas at London Zoo, coaxed to do their duty to perpetuate the species.’

Of course, Cleopatra is a notoriously difficult part, an Everest for any actress to climb. She has to be able to turn on a sixpence from one emotion to another, from coquetry to vindictiveness, joy to anguish, and to hold enough back for the final Act to make credible the most flamboyant death-scene in all Shakespeare. There’s no record of the play’s performance in the Bard’s lifetime. For a young boy in The King’s Men, the role must have seemed even more daunting than it does for the modern thespian. Perhaps Shakespeare was writing for a theatre of the future?

Mirren first played the part as a 20-year-old student teacher with the National Youth Theatre, when they took over the Old Vic for a two-week sell-out season. (‘A sixth matinee is being given to cope with the demand from schools,’ chirruped the Daily Mail, sponsors of the season.) For London’s theatre critics, this was their first sighting of a star in the making, and it’s instructive now to look back at what they wrote in 1965. Milton Schulman set the tone for much of the coverage she would receive in years to come:

As Cleopatra, Miss Helen Mirren was well equipped physically for the part with a voluptuous, sensuous figure that swayed with such conviction that rehearsals must have made considerable disciplinary demands upon the rest of the company. I can well imagine them being tempted to break out into storms of appreciative whistles. In her taunting, kittenish treatment of Antony, Miss Mirren pouted and sighed to good effect, but there was little here of the regal eroticism that made Cleopatra a symbol of feminine mystery and power. Her death scene, too, seemed a very small affair.

The ‘panda’ problem evidently threatened this production, too. Of John Nightingale, Mirren’s co-star, Schulman wrote: ‘Whenever Cleopatra was about he seemed to be thinking of something else – a cricket pitch, for example.’

J.C. Trewin reacted more favourably to the final scene, where the ‘pretty worm of Nilus’ goes about its venomous business:

Mark Antony and his Cleopatra were, very simply, two or three times as good as I had hoped. If we did not look for supreme excitement, we did find a reliance on Shakespeare, an unrestrained honesty. It touched the imagination when… the young Cleopatra, who at first had seemed to be from Shaw’s play rather than Shakespeare’s, sat robed and crowned, awaiting the ecstasy of death.

Michael Ratcliffe, for the Sunday press, praised her ‘arresting royal wench, coarse and witty’, while an anonymous reviewer in The Times was even more enthusiastic:

Miss Mirren is continuously exciting both to watch and to hear. If majesty comes to her aid only at the close of the play, it does so after she has displayed all the other dangerous attractiveness that Shakespeare demands.

Speaking at the time, the young Mirren knew that her youth counted against her in taking on the part of a middle-aged lover:

Of course, I know that an older woman would play it better. Life leaves a mark on people, certainly on Cleopatra. I haven’t got that mark yet. I can only try to imagine or think it out. (Quoted in Treneman.)

The actors’ youth was certainly a problem for a number of critics, among them Fiona MacCarthy:

There is plenty of intelligence. There just is not enough age… No one believes John Nightingale and Helen Mirren when they talk about grey hairs. Both act bravely, sometimes better. But Shakespeare’s sensuality is far out of their reach. So is his tragic climax; Cleopatra’s asp gets out of hand.

Penelope Gilliatt’s review for The Observer didn’t refer to the principals at all, singling out only Timothy Meats (Octavius Caesar) as worthy of mention,

a wintry, embarrassed man who allows one to forget for once that the people on the stage are quite simply too young to have experienced the feelings of the play. By professional standards it doesn’t work by miles, and it is a meaningless piece of piety to pretend anything else.

This selection of reviews shows a wide range of opinion, and early signs of the priapic excitement that Mirren has always aroused in male critics, but it’s only in Hilary Spurling’s lengthy critique in The Spectator that we find any true prescience.* She noted that

English Cleopatras, from all accounts, nearly always disappoint – they may excel at coquettish repartee or in swift changes of mood, they rise to moments of majesty and shine briefly in the death scene, but they don’t much relish the actual tumbling on the bed of Ptolemy… All the more startling, then, to find a Cleopatra who, with all the usual graces, is riggish to her fingertips. Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra is unselfconsciously and immoderately sensual.

Spurling illustrated her point with numerous details from the 1965 production (valuable for the theatre historian) and concluded that she was in the presence of a distinct new talent:

Here we seem to have an actress potentially quite outside the English tradition, at any rate since the heyday of Mrs Barry and Mrs Bracegirdle in the eighteenth century. At the end of the week the state ought to have been there, pressing forward with its cheque-book to offer her the finest training that money can buy.

(For the record, the state wasn’t, but the Al Parker agency was. Mirren has said since that she’s glad not to have gone to drama school: ‘I think that experience can destroy as much as it teaches.’)

Forty-four years later Helen Mirren gave a long interview on the role of Cleopatra to fellow actor Julian Curry for his book on key roles in Shakespeare. She proved a rather contrary interviewee. Almost every proposition Curry advances concerning the play she contradicts. Perhaps with those mating pandas in mind, he offers the unexceptional comment that ‘the play relies on strong sexual chemistry between the actors playing Antony and Cleopatra.’ No, it doesn’t, she says; their relationship isn’t about sexuality: ‘It’s about a kind of a love, or a kind of respect, or a kind of mythologisation – loving the myth image in the other person.’ She views Antony as the romantic, Cleopatra as the cynical pragmatist, out to safeguard her nation’s interests whatever it takes. ‘She doesn’t love him in a foolish, romantic way. It’s a very wide-open, all-seeing love.’ At the end of the play Cleopatra is ‘genuinely in love with him’ but Mirren’s ‘not too sure she is at the beginning.’ Like Julian Curry (to judge from his responses) I’m slightly surprised at her downplaying of the character’s sensuality. How is one to make sense of Act 1 scene 5 on this sexless reading – the scene where Cleopatra, frustrated by an empty bed in her lover’s absence, taunts the eunuch Mardian for being ‘unseminared’ (i.e. emasculated)? ‘I take no pleasure | In aught an eunuch has,’ she muses. Hilary Spurling’s review evoked that scene in the 1965 production:

She is borne in on a litter to while away the hours of Antony’s absence and, as she stretches luxuriously and caresses her own soft flesh, we feel more strongly than if he were there her invocation of his physical presence.

The question Curry doesn’t ask, and I rather wish he had, is how far Mirren’s view of the character has changed over forty years. This political manipulator that she describes now, for whom ‘everything is either a performance or a calculation of some sort’, is this the ‘same’ character she was essaying as a bold 20-year-old? In the recent interview she seems to be a bit cross with Shakespeare for not creating the character she wants to play. ‘I was always looking for ways to bring the real person into this rather fake person that Shakespeare presents,’ she declares. Be careful, Helen – that way arrogance lies.

*Spurling, later to make a solid reputation as a biographer, was only 24 herself at the time and, by her own admission, ‘the most dreadful, scathing, swingeing, destructive critic, a battleaxe’. In the late Sixties, Lindsay Anderson, joint artistic director of the Royal Court, tried to ban her from his theatre, having taken against one of her notices. But in this review she seems to be (as they say) ‘bang on the money’.


Anon, ‘Disciplined Shakespeare’, The Times, 7 September 1965, p11
Julian Curry, Shakespeare on Stage: Thirteen Leading Actors on Thirteen Key Roles (2010)
Nicholas de Jongh, ‘Suburban Shakespeare as Rickman and Mirren fail to ignite passion’, Evening Standard, 21 October 1998, p7
Penelope Gilliatt, ‘Ever so jocular: theatre’, The Observer, 12 September 1965, p25
Paul Laity, ‘A life in writing: Hilary Spurling’, Guardian, 17 April 2010
Fiona MacCarthy, ‘National Youth Theatre at the Old Vic’, Guardian, 7 September 1965, p7
Michael Ratcliffe, ‘Deep play’, Sunday Times, 12 September 1965, p45
Milton Schulman, ‘With such a Cleopatra could a lover think of cricket?’, Evening Standard, 7 September 1965, p4
Hilary Spurling, ‘Stark naked upon Nilus’ mud’, The Spectator, 17 September 1965, p352
Ann Treneman, ‘Helen Mirren – the drama queen of England’, Independent, 10 October 1998
J.C. Trewin, ‘Another national theatre appears in Waterloo Road’, Illustrated London News, 18 September 1965, p36