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.