Monday, June 05, 2006

Redgrave on Cleopatra

Vanessa Redgrave has, it turns out, played Cleopatra five times, and directed the play at least once. You'd think her insight into the Egyptian queen would be tremendous. Not so much.

She certainly gets off to a good start by making the comparison between Cleo and Elizabeth I; yes, I agree, that's probably what Shakespeare had in mind. The problem is, she seems to get stuck there. She does admit that her "view of Cleopatra is that of an Englishwoman," but surely there must be something more resonant in Cleopatra's character than a portrait of a 400-year-old royal spinster.

Things get worse. She observes that Cleopatra has a strong combination of "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity"; she thinks that Cleo can see through Antony's political posturing, and knows that he doesn't truly love her; but then she maintains that Cleo loves him anyway, even when he threatens to kill her. This doesn't sound like sophisticated intelligence to me; it sounds like a victim of psychological abuse. Worse yet, Redgrave writes, "She is frail in that she fears violence, and turns her ships away from battle because she is -- a woman."

But where I part company from her entirely is when she describes Cleopatra's suicide as a mundane gesture, achieving "the true nobility of seeing herself as merely a woman." Based on what she's already written, I'm afraid I don't see the nobility of womanhood; but never mind. The fact is, Cleopatra's death transcends humanity; she is becoming immortal, becoming a goddess, and rising, not falling, to meet her dead lover. Her reputation is going to live forever, and she knows it. Her death is not an ending, but a beginning.

Redgrave does include a short final chapter with some useful observations about the political, economic and scientific status of Egypt in Roman times; and she draws a very lovely parallel between Antony's descent into superstition (and the power of superstition to defeat science) and the witch-hunts and persecutions of James I. Not much of that is inherently playable, however. I was hoping for some cogent acting tips beyond "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity."

If there's one thing which Cleopatra never, ever, ever is, it's SIMPLE!

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