We all remember Mark Antony as the fellow who asks people to lend him their ears in Julius Caesar, but Shakespearians have fewer occasions to follow through with him to what might be considered the sequel, Antony and Cleopatra. That later play, charting his love affair with the Egyptian queen, will be aired at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco St.) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 18 (tickets $22, through ticketssantafe.org, 505-988-1234). It is the latest installment of the National Theatre Live broadcasts, this one starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the ill-fated couple blessed with a poetic grandeur that Shakespeare occasionally equaled but never exceeded.
Antony and Cleopatra has been on our minds since it figured in the recent film Tea with the Dames, which played this fall at The Screen at the Center for Contemporary Arts and is now available on several streaming platforms. Tea with the Dames invites viewers to eavesdrop on four luminary elders of the British stage — Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith — as they gossip and reminisce with uncensored candor during one of their periodic get-togethers. Before switching from tea to prosecco, they get on the topic of Antony and Cleopatra. All agree that Cleopatra is one of the Bard’s most challenging parts. At first, judging by the conversation, it seems that only Dame Judi was so brave as to take it on. She played it (opposite Anthony Hopkins) at the National Theatre in 1987, and when director Peter Hall cast her, she responded, “Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?” “But that’s what she was,” Dame Joan affirms. “And that’s the way I played it,” Dame Judi exclaims.
“I’ve turned Cleopatra down four times because I thought I wasn’t good-looking enough,” Dame Eileen says. It turns out that Dame Maggie actually did appear in the role — but it doesn’t really count because it was in Canada (she notes with delicious disdain). Dame Eileen summarizes: “I think actors who play Antony always feel it’s Cleopatra’s play because it’s a better part. At least that’s what Alan Bates told me.” To which Dame Maggie tartly responds, “That’s because he wanted to play Cleopatra.”