Indescribably Delicious

The beauty part: Varela as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile (1999 version).Photo: courtesy of ABC Television Network

Before we get to the barge, you will want to know immediately whether Leonor Varela is the Queen of the Nile of your tape-head dreams. After luxuriating in the four-hour, $30 million mini-series Cleopatra (Sunday, May 23, and Monday, May 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC), I’d say yes. Half Chilean and half French, she’s exotic enough not to need additives of kohl or lacquer. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, raven-haired, and lithe-limbed, not to mention imperial-pouty, she’s a lot more Wild Thing than Pop Tart. While her nose, like Claudette Colbert’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s, is not nearly as prominent as the one we see on the bas relief in the Temple of Hathor, neither is Timothy Dalton’s as big as the original Julius Caesar’s, nor Billy Zane’s as Marc Antony’s. Not for nothing would Pascal observe, 1,600 years later: “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.” The big-nozzled Romans obviously fell for women who sort of resembled them, as if to snorkel.

Anyway, Varela’s a dish. She seems, moreover, to enjoy power every bit as much as sex. “I am Egypt,” she tells Dalton’s Caesar. “Egypt is yours – for one night only.” And, my, does she know how to tantrum. Give a director like Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia, the Patrick Stewart Moby Dick) such a dish, a spicy script derived from Margaret George’s 1997 novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, a quarter-mile-long mock-up of ancient Alexandria, and most of Morocco to play with; add horses, camels, palm trees, breastplates, bubble baths, catapults, pyramids, and some funny-looking boats; top it off with Octavian (Rupert Graves) dealing from the bottom of a bureaucratic deck and Brutus (Sean Pertwee) behaving badly in the Roman Senate and Cassius (Bruce Payne) playing with knives on the Ides of March – and you are well on your way to Aida, which flimflam has been Cleo’s fate ever since Plutarch wrote the first hostile screenplay about her.

Nor is Virgil to be trusted, either. Because Octavian won at Actium, he decided who wrote history. He persuaded Virgil to glorify his Augustan self after he had been turned down by Horace and Propertius. From modern scholarship, we now know that Cleo was a working queen as much as a reclining couch. That she spoke nine languages and cut a shrewd deal with the Nabateans for oil rights to the Dead Sea. That if Julius fathered one child on her (a big deal in the mini-series) and Marc Antony three (omitted from the mini-series), she received in return a little of this and a little of that, like Lebanon and Syria, plus some prime real estate around Jericho, with lots of dates and balsam from which she made a bundle by leasing it back to King Herod of Judea.

I don’t know why ABC, otherwise so sympathetic to the Daughter of Isis, insists on having Cleo kill off her own sister, Arsinoe (Kassandra Voyagis), when, in fact, it was this sibling rival whom Caesar paraded in Rome. Nor is there any reliable evidence that Antony was such a lovesick yokel. (Shakespeare’s “doting mallard” doesn’t count). While the mini-series has packaged itself as a corrective to the Cleo-as-sexpot thesis, it just can’t help itself. Belly-dancing! Skinny-dipping! Rose petals! Severed heads!

As with last week’s Joan of Arc, we invent the Cleo we think we need, just like Boccaccio, Dante, Pushkin, Keats, and Cecil B. DeMille. Not to mention painters like Tiepolo, composers like Berlioz, and pomos like Edward Said. In Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, Lucy Hughes-Hallet looked at the queen with a feminist wink. In the Middle Ages, Cleo was said to have killed herself for the love of a man, like Dido or Thisbe. In the Renaissance, when sexual passion was a disease like madness, she menaced the social order. The Reformation needed a Bad Girl; the Romantics, a dominatrix. Lover, killer, bimbo, Asian wet dream – a combination, says Hughes-Hallet, of “pornography, window-shopping, and tourism.”

Indescribably Delicious