After all the sound and fury over casting a Black actor in the role of the Ptolemaic queen, Queen Cleopatra, does not offer any great insights into the mind of this canny Egyptian ruler. Despite the many academics and authors waxing eloquent on Cleopatra’s intelligence, culture and learning, we do not see any signs of it apart from a single skirmish with Cicero and another schoolyard-style trading of insults with Octavian. Her intelligence and scholarship is revealed with her poring over papyrus in the library while eating fruit—was it an orange or a date?
Just like the colour-blind casting in Anne Boleyn did not reveal anything new about the doomed Tudor Queen, here too we learn nothing about Cleopatra, the woman who survived and thrived in a male-dominated world.
The four-episode series, part of Jada Pinkett Smith’s (who also narrates) African Queens documentary series, recreates the well-worn trajectory of Cleopatra’s life with commentary from experts. Classics professor from Hamilton College, Shelley P Haley, insists right at the beginning of the show that her grandmother told her Cleopatra was black. Cleopatra’s race is discussed; reducing a multi-faceted woman like Cleopatra into her race or gender is rather self defeating.
Other talking heads include Debora Heard who is doing a doctorate in Nubian Archaeology and Egyptian Studies, authors Islam Issa, (Alexandria: The City that Changed the World) and Sally Ann Ashton (Cleopatra and Egypt), Egyptologist, Colleen Parnell, and Jacquelyn Williamson, an expert in the art and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean.
We start with the death of Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, and the ascension of Cleopatra (Adele James) and her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. Identifying as Egyptian rather than Ptolemaic, Cleopatra then heads to Thebes for the installation of the new, sacred Buchis bull. The rivalry between the siblings, Ptolemy’s ill-thought execution of Pompeii, Cleopatra’s winning over of Julius Caesar (John Partridge), her relationship with Mark Antony (Craig Russell), the disastrous Battle of Actium, and the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra are all trotted out without any earth-shattering revelations.
The problem with having all these commentators is they tell us Caesar was like this or Mark Antony was like that without showing us any of the said characteristics. If Antony was a great general, then why was he routed time and again? Cleopatra was a diplomat, a great military strategist then why were there all those inexplicable blunders made at the battlefield?
None of the characters of this great, tectonic-plate shifting drama seem to get out of the dusty pages of history to become living, breathing souls. Octavian (James Marlowe) does not speak till the end of the show and then only to insult Cleopatra who retaliates by calling him short! Naturally enough one is forced to think of the grandeur of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra with Richard Burton’s Antony matching her beat for beat. Or of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Cleopatra and all that talk of Cleopatra’s nose!
The enactments are rather sketchy with tight close-ups of the soldiers’ feet or helmets meant to convey the battles. It would have worked if the material was engrossing but it is not so we are back to thinking of grand sets, and grander jewelry. The blue of the Nile and Cleopatra’s eye shadow are captivating. The two interesting facts the show threw a light on were Cleopatra’s sister and rival Arsinoe’s (Andira Crichlow) ambitions and Antony and Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene II, making good on her mum’s dreams by becoming Queen of Numidia, Mauretania and Cyrenaica.
Queen Cleopatra was probably aiming for the Blood, Sex and Royalty vibe, but fell somewhere between the two stools of self-important and sassy.
Queen Cleopatra currently streams on Netflix