Monday, July 10, 2006

Cleopatra the Junkie?!

I've been watching the excellent HBO television series "Rome," which traces the same history as Shakespeare's two high Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. It's only one season old, and it's taking its time to arrive at the events which Shakespeare used as his focus -- but that's probably a good thing, since it's also telling a number of other stories amongst the lower ranks, all of which are just as interesting.

I've just seen Episode 8, "Caesarion," where Cleopatra is introduced. Julius Caesar has come to Alexandria in pursuit of his Roman enemy, Pompey Magnus, and ends up interceding in a family dispute amongst the Ptolemy dynasty. He sides with Cleopatra because, well, who wouldn't?

The first impression of Cleopatra is not a favourable one. She is disoriented, flighty, and when men come to assassinate her in her tent, she barely seems to care. She is, we quickly learn, an opium addict.

Now, I must admit to being a bit remiss on my history. For two months now, I've had a biography of Cleopatra by Michael Grant sitting on my shelf, but I haven't had the time to crack it open. I can't speculate (yet) whether this detail is historically accurate. I know the next one definitely isn't: at the urging of her slave woman, she has sex with a centurion so she will conceive a child, which she will later announce is Caesar's son.

I have absolutely no objection to the series playing fast and loose with historical details. In a lot of ways, it's part of the fun (especially since we know the centurion she picks). What I'm more concerned with is the way Cleopatra is portrayed here. "Rome" is full of scheming, conniving men and women, many of whom use sex for political ends. Cleopatra should, in that respect, be no exception. Why, then, have they made her an air-headed junkie? Why does she need her slave woman to tell her what would be politically expedient?

She's young, I guess -- another historical detail which many (including Shakespeare) overlook. But I must confess to being disappointed; I had hoped that, after 7 episodes of reptilian Roman politics, Cleo would slither in and out-snake them all. Maybe that will come.

In the meantime, James Purefoy's Mark Antony is a splendid bastard, more unscrupulous than a boatload of Cleopatras (Cleopatrae?), and revelling in his bastardy to boot. I look forward to seeing how the character evolves once Caesar gets the chop.

No comments: