Christopher Stocks


Cleopatra | Harpers

CleopatraTalk about Carry On Cleo! In the immortal, if glottally challenged words of the eponymous all-girl pop-group: ‘Cleopatra – comin’ atcha!’ Yes, it’s Cleopatra time again. Maybe it’s something in the stars, maybe it’s got something to do with Erich Von Daniken, but all the signs are that we’re in for one of those periodic outbreaks of Cleopatritis that sweep across the world, leaving in their wake a trail of Bo Derek hair beads, overemphatic eyeliner, exhausted Liz Taylor impersonators and clanking gold jewellery.

She might have been a right royal pain in the asp, but Cleopatra continues to exert a powerful hold on the collective imagination. As loveable old where-is-she-now Camille Paglia pointed out in Sex, Art and American Culture, the paradox about everyone’s favourite female Pharaoh is that Cleopatra’s historic reputation as a world-class seductress and all-round trouser-troubler was achieved despite the fact that she was, according to contemporary accounts, plain as a log and had the biggest nose in Alexandria.

The first sign of the current Cleopatra renaissance can actually be dated back to a John Galliano catwalk show in March 1998, which featured models with Cleopatra make-up, courtesy of Stéphane Marais at Shiseido. Since then, shakily-applied kohl – just see those Gucci ads – has made its biggest come-back since the days of Siouxsie Sioux, while chunky gold jewellery is back in a big (and we mean BIG) way. Even the bathing in asses’ milk malarky has been storming the world’s cosmetics counters – Phytologie’s milk-based PhytoPure range has been racing off the shelves; even Marks & Spencer has got in the act with its own-brand milk bath.

The latest symptoms of the epidemic are even more obvious. At Sadlers’ Wells, Houston Ballet return to London for the first time in 18 years with veteran choreographer Ben Stevenson’s £1 million blockbuster ballet called – you’ve guessed it – Cleopatra, with US-football-crazy Lauren Anderson in the title role. Just a few days later, the new-look British Museum nails its flag to the Zeitgeist with the opening of a major exhibition, Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth, accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue and a dodgily designed anthology of Cleopatra quotes called Cleopatra’s Face. At the other end of the Channel Tunnel, meanwhile, the latest Astérix adventure is en route, as they say in France, to video: provisionally entitled Mission Cléopatra, it stars sizzling Italian seductress Monica Bellucci and, as usual, Gérard Depardieu (though given the size of his nose it will be interesting to see who plays whom).

Does all this tell us anything? Apart from the obvious fact that we know so little about the real Cleopatra we can make of her what we will? Well, according to Egyptian expert Dr Christopher Pelling, ‘Cleopatra’s story has glamour; it has menace; it has sex; it has power. It can be made tawdry or witty or tragic. She can be a coquettish temptress, or a guileless victim, or a subtle and worldly manipulator of susceptible men.’ Sound familiar? Do the words ‘Girl Power’ spring to mind? Yes, it seems that Cleo was the Spice Girl of her time – or maybe of our time, since every decade seems to have a Cleopatra of its own: just think of 1970s Cher or 1990s Courtney Love, or even (if you can bear to) 1980s Mark Almond.

Which begs the question: who’s our current Cleo? I mean, can you imagine Victoria Beckham rolled up in a carpet? Oh dear… yes, it seems you can.