'Cléopatre in Love': a French stage view of a millennia-old image
Take a contemporary French play script, new-age punk music, Hollywood, electric fans, transparent curtain, gold bars of soap falling from above, metallic thermal blankets and a peppy actress in a shimmering party dress, and what do you get? Cléopatre in Love at the Nouveau Théâtre de Montreuil just outside Paris. Judith Henry shines as the ancient Egyptian Queen.
We probably think we know more than we actually do know about Cleopatra, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 69 BC and died in 30 BC.
Christophe Fiat and Judith Henry can teach us a lot more in their monologue mix of fact and fiction.
Together with Claire Ingrid Cottonceau, without producing a militant feminist work, they aim to restore to Cleopatra the dignity and skills that set her apart from other mortals.
To reach their goal, Fiat, Henry and Cottonceau imagine the Queen today as a mildly punkish singer.
Actress Henry decided to emigrate to the stage from an early start in French cinema in a delicate feminine role in La Discrète. In Cleopatre in Love, she performs multiple feminine-character facets to compose a Queen who was a leader and a lover, and also a petulant and demanding mistress.
"The facet that most attracted me to this person was her strength," says Henry. "The fact is that she was a very intelligent and very cultivated woman, who had lots of power, who was a war lord. She wasn’t a mere icon, a sex symbol like she is in the Mankiewitz film, [or] in Katy Perry’s video clips.
"I find the difference between who she was and what remains of her today incredible. And I find it very sweet that a man has chosen to write about her, and to write about women in such an elegant way."
Fact and fiction
The trio felt compelled to give special attention to the Hollywoodian myth-within-the-myth – Joseph Manckiewiz's 1963 film, Cleopatra. Thanks to the film, when the Queen's name is mentioned, even in the 21st Century, the multi-costumed and heavily made-up character played by Elizabeth Taylor appears.
Her steamy performance (for the time at least) with future husband Richard Burton as her lover, Mark Anthony, Emperor Caesar's right-hand man, has remained ingrained on the minds of all who have watched it, or even seen an extract.
Interpreting fact and fiction
One of Henry's lines is, "Yes, I did learn about tidal movements, and so what...? I also know about the equator, the latitude of Marseille, and how a lightning conductor works... and so what?
"Does this make me less attractive?"
Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII Auletes, pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Dynasty who was born in Macedonia, we learn, encouraged his daughter to learn science and languages. A model father.
Henry plays with the character of Cleopatra rather than playing her, as such, and says that she learned the Romans had started off a lasting smear-campaign centuries ago.
"She had been very dangerous for the Romans. They wanted to annihilate her. We are left with an image of her as a mercenary seductress, a temperamental, women who owed everything to her feminine attributes. I think it’s incredible how her image has been tainted. The Romans started it with Plutarch."
The entire stage is Cleopatra's stomping ground, with different spaces for different moods and different incarnations, as well as her own, defined by a multipurpose curtain. Fiat describes the play as a kaleidoscope.
Virtually unavoidable and attractive quantities of gold reflect all matter of things on stage, fluttering pieces of foil, foil-blankets as regal robes, and gold bars of 'Cleopatra Brand' soap falling from on high for the royal bath.
Video images projected on the semi-transparent curtain of ancient sculptures at the Louvre Museum, school history classes and popular entertainment show how Queen Cleopatra has captured common imagination over centuries.
The frail-looking actress engages with the audience at moments, then is engrossed in her own memories or in reviewing perceptions of herself over time.
Henry is more or less alone on stage with the decor and the sound track, accompanied by a curious non-descript, player, stage-hand, musician in the guise of Christophe Fiat.
All this leaves space for the spectators to fall in love with Cleopatra for her powerful majesty, her military leadership, her erudition, her humour, or her skin-deep beauty.
Cléopatre in Love (in French) is playing in Montreuil at the Nouveau Théâtre National until 22 February. First stop of the tour in March 2019 is in the east of France in Strasbourg.