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The Cleopatra Costume on Stage and in Film (Part 6)

by C. David Claudon, copyright 1999

Present day Cleopatras like Helen Mirren veer away from the historical minutia to find the universal themes in Cleopatra's story.

1996...Antony and Cleopatra

An Elizabethan Cleopatra

Vanessa Redgrave starred and directed a new Antony and Cleopatra which played the Alley Theatre and the Anspacher Theatre. According to CurtainUp's review (1996),
Vanessa Redgrave has not only undertaken this daunting task but given it a "bold new" political-historical interpretation as #35 in the Papp's Shakespeare Marathon. In the process she has completely shelved the fiery Cleopatra of her "salad days." Her daring brings to mind one of the play's most famous lines by Antony's friend Enorbarbus:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety . . .

Redgrave modeled her Renaissance leader Cleopatra on Elizabeth I and her Antony on Michelangelo. The reviewer continues:

Fetchingly attired (by Ann Hould-Ward), first in jodphurs and later in big-brimmed hats and ruff-collared dresses her "infinite variety" ranges from boyish charm, to woman-in-love-with love and amusingly insecure Other Woman--never mysterious and imposing monarch/temptress.

In all, however, the CurtainUp reviewer was not taken with Redgrave's humorous touches, multi-racial casting, genderbending casting, nor the videos, ladders and other trappings. Amy Hemphill on the otherhand gave Redgrave's production at the Alley Theatre four stars.

The composite from two publicity photos of the production shows the Elizabethan approach.

1998...Antony and Cleopatra Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman debuted with the Royal National Theatre in Sean Mathias' production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Olivier Theatre. The play ran from October to December 1998 and received mixed reviews. Mr. Rickman received generally negative reviews. (The Express stated, "He's so soporific, waddling and mumbling in the role, you just want to slap him in the chops.") Helen Mirren fared better. Said The Daily Telegraph:
...Helen Mirren's performance is heroic. With her spangly dress and braided hair, she initially looks more like the faintly raddled queen of a suburban disco than old Nile, but she impressively captures Cleopatra's volatility of mood, and though her variety may be less than infinite, she is funny, touching, sexy, capricious and at moments achingly vulnerable. She's especially fine in the last act, when Cleopatra suddenly transcends the pettiness of her own nature in speeches of ravishing beauty (the continued use of background sound effects here is a disgrace). Mirren rises superbly to the verbal challenge, and as she strips off her simple white costume to don her royal robes and go exquisitely to her death, this often frustrating production finally achieves the rapt magnificence that has eluded it for so long. (Charles Spencer)
Spencer's take on the costumes and set includes:
David Belugou's costumes are almost comically traditional, complete with togas and scantily clad handmaidens who might have stepped straight out of Carry on Cleo. Meanwhile Tim Hatley's clunking abstract set, featuring a great metallic semi-circle, contrives to be both cumbersome and stubbornly unatmospheric. Only in the final scene in Cleopatra's monument, with the stage filled with hundreds of candles, does this most sensual of plays achieve anything approaching visual magic.

This composite by David Claudon is based on publicity pictures from the production

Says Tony Purnell ofThe Mirror:
Mirren went down the glamour-free route. "Age shall not wither her," according to the Bard. But it was a close ran thing for a barefoot Cleo scrubbed free of all make-up and in unflattering gowns. But she captures the fiery spirit and bovver girl qualities of the quicksilver queen. The only time she resembled a glamour queen was in the death scene. She boldly stepped out of a white smock, was starkers in seconds as she changed into a gold gown before clutching a deadly snake to her bosom. It escaped in rehearsals but thankfully was on cue to bring the three and half hour play to a close. [Cedric the snake actually has his own webpage.]
Pictures from the production show Miss Mirren in a simple striped gown [color pure speculation on my part] with hair in braids and a headband. Another low cut gown has a plain Egyptian collar. Of the final costume, one sees a crown based on the red crown, this time consisting of a gold mesh on gold metal frame. Her gold gown has heavy gold braid trim.
1999..."Cleopatra" Hallmark Entertainment's $30 million production of "Cleopatra" (based on Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra) aired on May 23 & 24, 1999 on ABC. The publicity campaign, featuring Leonor Varela (a 23-year-old Chilean) lying by a pool of water, nude except for a small piece of fabric draped artfully over her backside. This picture and the slogan, "Pleasure becomes power," hinted at one of the prime focuses of the production. (There are several scenes of nudity in the film.) Extravagance appropriate to the lavish lifestyle of ancient Alexandria was another prime feature. The Moroccan set of Alexandria cost over $2.5 million. It measured a quarter mile from end to end, about four football fields in length. It was larger than the Titanic set.

Costume designer Enrico Sabbatini used many authentic ancient Egyptian touches.

Says the ABC,Inc. website (1999): "It took one ton of copper to make 1,5000 pieces of jewelry and 2,000 costumes. And if the total amount of silk used to make the costumes was stretched out, it would extend for nearly two miles!"

Many of Cleopatra's gowns were similar to a silk sleeveless sari with a deep v-neck. Shown in the illustration above is a V-necked, sleeveless gown of pleated silk, with a gold trimmed pleated tissue silk over-mantle tucked into a grey-gold scarf belt. She wears a five-strand gold necklace. On her head she wears a red-lacquered diadem with small circles and a large uraeus painted the same as the one on Tutankamun's gold mask.

One costume, worn following Caesar's death, was a charcoal silk dress with over-mantle of gold, charcoal and beige checked tissue. She has gold snake bracelets on each arm. Her hair is pulled back in a long pony-tail with hair pulled above and below her red diadem.

When Cleopatra goes to Tarsus, she wears a gold silk v-neck dress with an overmantle of red and gold patterned tissue. She wears her hair down the back and her makeup has kohl eyeliner and gold eyeshadow.

Among her numerous other gowns are a white sari and overmantle with gold trim and a red caftan with black trim.

  The combination Isis crown depicts two plumes rather than horns and a small moon disk with a center ball. Cleopatra's mausoleum costume could well have been based on the description from Apuleius's Golden Ass mentioned on the first page of the website. The gown and overmantle are made from irredescent gold tissue silk, varigated with gold, dark red, green. Her necklace has bands of gold and green beads. Her hair is divided into two side-braids with gold bands in a lotus design. The back hangs loose. The solid gold combination Isis crown is a modified "Greco-Roman" look, similar to one shown on the first page.
1999...Antony and Cleopatra

Michael Coveney of the Daily Mail says, "[Mr. Bates] starts with his head in Cleopatra's lap and ends lost in her arms. He has kissed away kingdoms and provinces--and triumphed all the same."

Steven Pimlott's Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra, a mixture of shocking presentation, stark staging, brassy music and modern dress got generally good reviews.

The opening was designed to shock. John Peter of The Sunday Times says:

Pimlott's production opens unpromisingly. "Look where they come," says a soldier, and so they do: the stage crowd parts to reveal Alan Bates's Antony vigorously performing cunnilingus on Frances de la Tour's semi-recumbent Cleopatra. This infantile director's gesture is like a pretentious designer label, shouting: Look what I can do! This is adult sex! It was me who thought of this!

It takes huge authority for actors to recover from such a scene.

Apparently from the reviews, the two actors were able to recover, often brilliantly. All seemed struck by de la Tour's final scene. As the actors die, they depart from the stage into the darkness of the wings. According to the reviewers, "like a tired actress in her dressing room," de la Tour strips down to a wig-cap, takes off her make-up, "and then applies a new Egyptian mummy mask as she readies herself to meet, in this world, history, and, in the next world, Antony." (Macaulay) Only a few hints are given to describe Yolanda Sonnabend's costumes:
  • Billington: "Even the leather bikers' kit for the Romans and fluid silks for the Egyptians possess a timeless charm."
  • Kingston: "DE la Tour is not a classic beauty but in her kingfisher blue robes she becomes regal, exotic and, like all the best exotic queens, unpredictable."
  • de Jongh: "Pimlott's idea is to show how often Antony and Cleopatra behave like narcissistic arctors, who relish watching themselves perform as lovers and victims of desire and fate. Yolanda Sonnabend's set, with costumes running from acient to modern, faithfully reflects the director's concept... The bareish stage, with a 10-strong band of musicians often in evidence, is significantly dominated by a trio of mirrors, which keep reminding us how self-absorbed and self-regarding these mature lovers are."
  • Coveney: "Angular, funny, queenly of voice and gesture, [Miss de la Tour] summons those immortal longings like a Buddhist hermit, stripped to her hair-net and brown cloak before assuming the golden garb of greatness."
In all the production seems to have found an original voice with a modern look.
1999...Antony and Cleopatra Actor, artistic-director of the new Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance, plays Cleopatra in the all male cast production of Antony and Cleopatra. Says the BBC website:
Women were banned from the stage in Shakespeare's day, and female roles were played by boys. But, in the absence of any conclusive evidence, Rylance thinks grown men must have played more mature and powerful heroines such as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.

He added he wanted to convince audience through his voice and movement that he was really a woman - something that would not work if he was self-conscious or camp.

"This will challenge the audiences to stretch their imagination. I want people to believe I love Antony like no one else has loved him, that I am jealous beyond measure of Octavia."

He said he imagined Dame Judi Dench would make a fitting Brutus, but said his production aimed for historical authenticity, not gender role reversal. Two other female roles will be taken by men.

One looks forward to more word on this production.
Final Reflection

Throughout the history of the Cleopatra costume, actresses and designers have attempted approaches that say more about their own time period than that of Cleopatra's. Contemporary dress; appropriate dress; historical accuracy contemporary style; historical accuracy Elizabethan style; historical accuracy Egyptian style; purely theatrical costuming--all these have been used and reflect both the facination for the subject matter and the creativity of the individual interpretations. Modern productions have moved from the Egyptian queen as beauty queen, and found a much closer approximation to the fascination of a real woman, who enticed not with her beauty, but with her wit and intelligence.


What the Real Cleopatra Wore

The Cleopatra costume (1604-1799)

The Cleopatra costume (1800-1899)

The Cleopatra costume (1900-1950)

The Cleopatra costume (1950 to 1990)

The Cleopatra costume to the millinneum and beyond

A list of Cleopatras on stage and in the movies

This page was created by C. David Claudon. Last update April 25, 2009 .

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