x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Cleopatra in the arts through the ages

The femme fatale has peered at the world through kohl-rimmed eyes for centuries – and the world has gazed back in wonder at the first great global celebrity.

Elizabeth Taylor's famous portrayal of the last Egyptian pharaoh in the 1963 film Cleopatra is perhaps the best-known. AP Photo
Elizabeth Taylor's famous portrayal of the last Egyptian pharaoh in the 1963 film Cleopatra is perhaps the best-known. AP Photo

The Greek writer Plutarch first wrote about her in a book called Parallel Lives sometime around 100 AD. He said she met Antony "at the very time when women have the most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power". The Roman historian Cassius Dio went further. She was, he said: "a woman of surpassing beauty".

But neither actually saw her and were writing long after her death. They spawned an enduring myth that has been sustained ever since by books, ballets, operas, films and paintings. She remains one of the most famous women in history.

William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw both wrote plays about her famous romances, and these have inspired a continuing flow of other dramatic portrayals.

Most great actresses seem to have played Cleopatra at some stage in their careers and she has featured in films since the dawn of the silver screen.

Oddly, her first cinematic outing was as a mummy in a French silent film made in 1899 by Jeanne d'Alcy. The first full-length film about her was the 1908 American feature Antony and Cleopatra starring the Canadian actress Florence Lawrence, the star of more than 270 films.

The first Cleopatra movie whose fame endures today featured Theda Bara, the silent screen's greatest vamp. But only 17 seconds survive of her 1917 film Cleopatra.

As soon as the talkies arrived the most glamorous actresses of the day were cast in the role - Claudette Colbert in a 1934 film, Vivien Leigh opposite Claude Rains in 1945's Caesar and Cleopatra, Rhonda Fleming in the 1953 saga Serpent of the Nile and, most memorably, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra opposite her future husband Richard Burton. Their own romance blossomed though this 1963 film legendarily nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

It was followed swiftly by the 1964 spoof Carry On Cleo starring Amanda Barrie. A similarly playful take on the Queen was offered in two French animated films, Asterix and Cleopatra and Asterix and Obelix Meet Cleopatra.

But the Queen's magic still seduces filmmakers. Two contemporary goddesses of the big screen are lined up to play her. Angelina Jolie is expected to star in a 3D blockbuster of her story based on a new biography by the American writer Stacy Schiff. And the Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones is tipped to star in another 3D version of the story - this time a rock musical - opposite Ray Winstone.

Cinema may bring Cleo to mass audiences, but theatre, opera and ballet have also shown a continuing preoccupation with her tale. Handel, Berlioz, Massenet, Scarlatti and Samuel Barber are among more than 20 composers who have based operas around her.

Ballet companies have been presenting the Queen ever since Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe staged Michel Fokine's choreographed Cleopatre in St Petersburg and then in Paris in 1908.

Most recently the Houston Ballet Company toured its 2000 production of Cleopatra, choreographed by Ben Stevenson to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. It was the Queen's last dance appearance on a British stage until Northern Ballet's production.