Essays: Sir Lew and the serpent of old Nile |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Sir Lew and the serpent of old Nile

DOMINATING the week’s television, William Shakespeare and Sir Lew Grade gave us Antony and Cleopatra (ATV). That Sir Lew should so willingly collaborate with Shakespeare is doubtless one of the reasons why he is a knight, although it is disappointing to note that Shakespeare has never been made a knight for collaborating with Sir Lew. Surely a posthumous award can be arranged.

The production has already been hailed as a television milestone. Certainly it was an important show, even if its welcome pluses were undone in the end by its pervasive minuses. It was a programme evincing a Reinhardtian confidence of purpose, reminding you of the occasion when the great Max, producing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the open air, said ‘That will have to go’ and pointed at Oxford. It had grandeur, both of conception and folly. But justice demands that we deal first with the pluses.

This was one of the few television productions of Shakespeare ever to look convincing, and the lessons of how this was achieved need to be learned by everybody, even at the cost of imposing a new orthodoxy. Instead of the usual miniaturised variations on theatrical box sets, we were given no sets at all. The actors moved in free space with the cameras framed closely round them: the atmosphere in the frame was detailed — a cup, a grape, a jewel — but there was nothing in the distance except a blur. The pin-point concentration of the television picture was thus, for once, reinforced instead of dissipated.

The gain in visual drama was palpable. It’s likely that this close-up scrutinising has no greater psychological validity than long-range scanning (Ortega contended that the truth-telling eye — he meant Velasquez’s — sees distance clearly and nearness in a haze), but it unquestionably carries a heavier neurotic punch. The picture brimmed with revelation at all times, and positively sang with tension whenever the Serpent of old Nile slithered sexily into view.

Cleo was played by Janet Suzman. She doesn’t look very Egyptian. In fact she possesses such a classical cranium that when she’s in a tight head-shot you feel like ringing her up to tell her that the rest of her is standing at the head of the grand staircase in the Louvre — the Winged Victory of Samothrace. But after a painstaking dip in the Tan-fastic she looks superb: soft gold, lapis lazuli and hot chocolate. In the few long shots, she was just a burble of troubled air, recalling Omar Sharif riding endlessly towards the telephoto lens in ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ Here, as elsewhere, spectacle was described rather than rendered — which is in the spirit of Shakespeare’s theatre, and the reason why he wrote poetry in the first place. The ambience was sensational throughout.

Linguistically, however, it was an average production going on vile. To begin with, the cutting was drastic. It is true that Shakespeare was over-loyal to the sequence of events in Plutarch, and in particular one is bound to do something about the bittiness of Act II, which was here reshuffled to edifying effect. There are even sound reasons for extirpating Pompey’s share of the action. But Trevor Nunn had no solid dramatic reasons for trimming every second speech in the play. He did it to leave the actors room to act around the words, thereby flouting the rule rediscovered and established for all time by Shaw when he was rescuing Shakespeare from the actor-managers — you must act Shakespeare on the lines and not in between.

The Nunn version started at ‘If it be love indeed, tell me how much,’ thereby leaving the principals to establish Antony’s enslavement — an idea the Shakespeare version conveys immediately by sending Philo on to tell you the news. So straightaway we lost this dotage of our general’s, a tawny front, a Gypsy’s lust and the triple pillar of the world: words and phrases which not only encapsulate Rome’s disapproval but embody it. Antony (Richard Johnson) soon frittered away the time saved by taking too long over his first speeches, although these were a mere token of the longueurs he was to indulge in later. I fear Mr Johnson doesn’t know an iambic pentameter from a brass-trimmed barometer. The blank verse line is flexible, but flexible does not mean formless. It means the opposite.

For every space that was put in to leave room for acting an emotion, words had to be left out which conveyed the emotion better. As a consequence, the pace was lost, and hours took an hour to pass by, when in fact they should go like minutes. Enobarbus, blessed with one of the most effortlessly resonant speeches in all Shakespeare, made ‘The barge she sat in’ into a separate production of its own, depriving it of every last flickering beat of rhythm while injecting so much pursed lip and puckered eyebrow that he bade fair to sprain his head.

Not even Cleo was exempt. Janet Suzman is usually a fine speaker of verse (she saved the recent ‘Twelfth Night’ from negligibility), but the Nunn version would have tempted a saint to emote, and she wasn’t dressed like one of those. I occupied the spare time in several of her speeches by counting her teeth. Her Act IV aria over Antony’s corpse (Mr Johnson’s final and marginally most protracted pause of the evening) took about a year. Where Shakespeare had written the word ‘O,’ she favoured us with an extended imitation of a hurrying ambulance, after which the lines about the visiting moon came as an anti-climax. Her subsequent suicide, surely, was merely self-criticism. Corin Redgrave, who as Octavius had been working well all night, came on at the finish to curl a somewhat regretful lip, but by a last master-stroke of the Nunn version was deprived of the opportunity to say that ‘she looks like sleep/As she would catch another Antony/In her strong toil of grace.’ We were left with the memory of beautiful pictures, and verbal scraps which did not join up.

The Observer, 4th August 1974