Rome and Cleopatra

I have allowed myself to go back in time to the world of Caesars Julius and Augustus, via the disk and screen in a box (ie DVD player). It’s opened an interest in a part of history I had previously ignored, and introduced me to a certain queen of Egypt that I’d overlooked, but who is certainly my kind of woman. (I admire strong royal women such as Anne Boleyn).

The parallels with Anne are pretty obvious: little historical evidence, vagueness about her birth and parentage, and most of the information we have coming from, shall we politely say, non sympathisers. Cleopatra too has been also seen as the siren, ambitious femme fatale. Perhaps more than Anne, she is known for opulence if not decadence – have you seen a pouty woman posing and said “Think you’re Cleopatra?” The HBO/BBC television series, Rome, is full of pouty women, including the just mentioned last of the Ptolemy dynasty. (I was surprised to learn Cleo is in fact Greek). The show’s creators claim that they’re women focussed, but there are far fewer women in this vampy, campy epic. Atia of the Julii is akin to Joan Collins (and Eddy from Ab Fab), but far more bloody, and the performance by Polly Walker has a definite comic turn.

I would like to have seen more females and found the show harder to relate to because of that, especially that only so few were positive. I thought little of the two semi historic solider characters through whom we see events unfolding.

As well as the treatment of women – particularly the rape as torture of one noble woman by another – I was shocked by the compete lack of critique of slavery. The second season was screened during the year that Britain celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, with campaigns to stop other forms. Here was an opportunity for the show to have backed that; but instead, the ownership of others, brutal treatments and sexual abuse is considered normal. The actors justify their characters and enter the mindset that ‘there’s always suicide if you don’t like it,’ (as Ciaran Hinds said of playing Julius Caesar). I was also furious that men had the right to beat and and kill the women of their families without appeal, protection or punishment.

The show has little in the way of character development except towards defeat or power. There is little forgiveness or redemption. The one act there is – from Vorenus’s daughter – comes because he is apparently dying (and the show ending), not because he’s done anything to earn it. Nothing has happened for his daughter to accept their mother-killing, cursing father, full of unbridled rage. Servila and Atia’s feud ends with Servila publicly cursing Atia then killing herself. Romans saw forgiveness and mercy as weakness, the historical commentary tells us, but it seems the writers do too; and how can they speak so generally of a world long gone? Could we sum up our society’s values so simplistically? Rome was multicultural and multi- class; I think saying “Romans thought…” is far too vague, especially without offering evidence. But wouldn’t it have been better for Rome to have shown people who were different? Most stories are about people who we admire for not being like the rest of their society – the one non snob in an upper class family who values love over status; the person who challenges racism or homophobia or some other injustice. Yet with Rome, there’s no-one really to admire and the cast is too ensemble to latch onto anyone’s story. No-one breaks free, no one does anything especially good. Titus Pullo, one of the soldiers we’re meant to rally for, ends by strangling his partner and sending her (he believes) to roam as a lost sprit forever. The plot about him being the father of Ceasarion was ridiculous. There are rumours that Cleopatra’s son with Caesar was not in fact fathered by Julius; but a quick ** by a passing solider hardly constitutes much of a fatherhood.

Cleopatra was portrayed in an angering manner. Nearly 50 years after Liz Taylors’s iconic performance, the writers here showed a far less feminist Queen than the Hollywood of the 1960s – and both were written by Anglo and American males. HBO’s Cleopatra is a drug and sex addled kitten who lures brute faced Anthony away from his true roots (and gets told off by the angry faced Kevin Mc Kidd for tricking Antony into killing himself). We are encouraged to have a little understanding and sympathy for her final dilemma. She cries movingly before parting with her children; she foresees that Octavius Caesar is a monster about to parade her naked through Rome before killing her publicly; but she’s not really been a worthy adversary or much of a ruler. Earlier, she shoots a slave dressed as deer which holds Anthony from dealing with urgent political matters, driving up prices to start a war with Rome. The only brave thing this Cleopatra does is actually hold a live snake, taking Shakespeare’s best stage direction literally (Liz gets bitten by dipping her hand into a moving basket of figs). The beginning of her and Anthony’s relationship is missing so we arrive in Alexandria to see them as drunken lovers, both in ridiculous eye makeup, without understanding why Cleopatra’s seethrough dress took their association from flirtation to a famous historic love affair.

It took me a while to establish a rapport with the myriad cast, many of whom were familiar by name (Cicero, Brutus, Pompey) but by the time they felt like rounded characters, they were dead. By the end of the show, nearly everyone I cared about was dead – or the foils that made them interesting were: Atia lives but her rival Servila does not; Niobe, Vorenus’s wife throws herself off a balcony when her secret affair (he had been gone 7 years!) was revealed.

Compared to some recent cinema viewing – To The Wonder, Cloud Atlas – this show was engaging enough for me to watch both seasons back to back, and all the extras. But Rome ultimately is as camp as it is brutal, making violence kind of fun, but without challenging society or giving a continuing storyline that really drew me. The one person that always made me laugh was the Herald, especially for his hand movements – and an interesting device to tell us what had happened (eg the upshot of a battle) with amusing anecdotes to show that commercials are not new!

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Filed under cinema, history, society, television

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