Artbeat

27th April 2001 at 01:00
There is, they say, nothing new under the sun. It is no accident that Cleopatra VII of Egypt has been feted for more than 2,000 years as a legendary beauty: she was an early example of image creation, of spin-doctoring, stage management and regal PR. A Ptolemy, and thus a descendant of the Macedonian general who had served Alexander the Great and become pharaoh 300 years before her birth, she seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in turn and bore children to them both. She presented herself cunningly, rolled, it is said, in an Oriental carpet for her first meeting with Caesar. Later, summoned for discussions by Antony at Tarsus in 41BC, she arrived by river dressed as Aphrodite.

The British Museum's exhibition, Cleopatra of Egypt: from history to myth, is packing in a public already familiar with the glamour of the Egyptian queen (if only from watching Elizabeth Taylor play her on film) and impressed by the enormous publicity her name still attracts.

Scarcely a newspaper has failed to run an article about the true appearance of Cleopatra, usually suggesting that she was an ordinary, mousey-looking soul whose success rested on some secret sexual power which had little to do with accepted notions of beauty. She was certainly a murderer (her brother-husband - the Ptolemies regarded sibling marriage as politically expedient - was in the way), and was vilified by Octavian (later Augustus) as the woman who "unmanned" Antony.

What visitors see is a rather conventional exhibition consisting of statues, coins and other artefacts which provide a few historical insights, but no conclusive proof about the central figure. It is fascinating to learn in passing that Alexandria was divided into districts and was therefore the first ancient city to have addresses, and that Cleopatra can be distinguished by the triple-headed version of the uraeus, the cobra headdress which was the symbol of royal authority. Cleopatra was unique in this; other Ptolemaic monarchs wore single and double versions.

There are, too, some splendid portrait busts of officials which seem to represent real rather than idealised figures, and some surpises, such as the statue of the son Cleopatra bore Caesar dressed as an Armenian prince.

The overall effect of the exhibition is of a confusing arrangement of objects in a fairly cramped space. Perhaps the events, such as the A-level study day on May 2 or the Cleopatra course on May 11- 12, will provide some much needed enlightenment. Education information: 020 7323 85118854.

The Toreador Song is probably being sung on the tops of school buses in Essex this spring. Pupils from six local schools are preparing to take part in a full-scale production of Carmen on June 7 and 8 at the Civic Theatre in Chelmsford. London Opera Players have been teaching 150 pupils in a series of workshops and will join them to play the main roles in Bizet's best-known work. Tickets: 01245 606505.

A day-by-day account of preparations for the National Theatre's production of Hamlet, starring Simon Russell Beale, could be just the thing to give theatre studies students an insight into the processes, anxieties and satisfactions of putting on a major Shakespearean tragedy. And students of the text will pick up all sorts of insights provided from a practical point of view. Jonathan Croall's book, generously illustrated with black and white photographs and published by the National Theatre at pound;7, is available from the NT bookshop (orders: 020 7452 3456). Meanwhile, winners of the Shakespeare's Globe competition for young reviewers of Hamlet on Screen may be found at its website: www.shakespearesglobe.com The West Yorkshire Playhouse is about to leap into African life. The world premiere of Yaa Asantewaa - Warrior Queen promises to be a spectacular celebration of the life of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, a woman who led an army against the British colonial forces in Ghana in 1900. The 25 dancers and drummers of Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble, the African and Caribbean Music Circuit, Black Voices and the Pan-African Orchestra of Ghana will all contribute to the production which features drummer Kofi Ghanaba as guest artist. A UK-wide tour is planned after the Playhouse run, April 28 to May 19. Tickets: 0113 213 7700.

HEATHER NEILL


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