09 April 1987: Hopkins and Dench play ancient lovers

Published April 23, 2008

Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony And Cleopatra has spawned numerous famous pairings in the title roles. On 9 April 1987 it was the turn of Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, who played the lovers in Peter Hall’s production at the National Theatre.

In telling the story of the romance between Roman triumvir Mark Antony and Queen of Egypt Cleopatra, Shakespeare created two complex and demanding characters who have been depicted on stage by some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, including Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (1951), Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft (1953), and Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter (2006).

The performances of Hopkins and Dench in 1987 are considered among the finest and received much critical acclaim. Dench, whose extremely varied career has seen her play such eclectic roles as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Lady Macbeth and a vulnerable bar owner in Absolute Hell, was not, at the time, seen as the obvious choice to play the sexually-alluring, game-playing Cleopatra, but she pulled it off to Laurence Olivier Award-winning effect, picking up her fourth Actress of the Year statuette for the role in the 1987 ceremony.

Reviewing the production in The Guardian, Michael Billington wrote: “It is not only the most intelligently-spoken Shakespeare I have heard in years but it also contains two performances from Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins that, in their comprehensive humanity, rank with Ashcroft and Redgrave at Stratford many moons ago.”

The legacy of their performances was such that in 2006, commenting on the Stewart/Walter pairing in an RSC production at London’s Novello, Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph wrote: “You have to go back to Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench at the National Theatre 20 years ago to find the equals of Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in the title roles.”

Though he began on stage, in Laurence Olivier’s company at the National, Welsh actor Hopkins’s career gravitated towards film and television. Four years after playing Antony alongside Dench, Hopkins scored an international success playing serial killer Hannibal Lector in the film The Silence Of The Lambs, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1992. Since then his many films have included Howard’s End, The Remains Of The Day, Shadowlands, The Mask Of Zorro, Hannibal, Red Dragon, Nixon and Beowulf.

Dench’s post-1987 career has also included many films. As M in the Pierce Brosnan-led James Bond films she reached a wider audience, and her mass appeal in the US was consolidated by her Oscar win for Shakespeare In Love and her BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated turn as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown in 1997. Other screen work includes films Ladies In Lavender, Tea With Mussolini, Mrs Henderson Presents, Notes On A Scandal and the recent BBC costume drama Cranford. On stage, Dame Judi is now a seven-times Laurence Olivier Award-winner (including a Special Award in 2004) whose recent West End credits include Breath Of Life and Hay Fever. She returns to the stage in 2009 in Madame De Sade at the Wyndham’s, directed by Michael Grandage, as part of the Donmar West End season.

CB