Thursday, 16 January 2014

A reading from William Shakespeare's "Antony & Nigella"

A retired actor at last night’s Chiswick Pass On A Poem gathering told us that the first Cleopatra he’d seen on stage was Edith Evans, then well into her fifties. “I was 17 at the time, and she didn’t really do it for me.” Well, no, she wouldn’t: regal, no doubt, but erotic and exotic? One doubts it. That’s the problem with all of the actresses I’ve seen play Cleopatra, whether Shakespeare’s or anyone else’s version of her: they usually combine one or two of the necessary elements, but never all of them.

For instance, Elizabeth Taylor looked impressive, but her thin, nasal voice was spectacularly unarousing (and, of course, she couldn’t act for toffee). Vivien Leigh looked and sounded wonderful – but wasn’t in the least bit exotic. Claudette Colbert was impressive (and sexy), but not imperious enough and just too white.

I’ve occasionally considered reciting that marvellous passage from Antony & Cleopatra where Enobarbus describes Cleopatra arriving to meet Mark Anthony for the first time – possibly the most gorgeously sensual and sensuous passage in all literature. I’ve resisted the temptation until now for two reasons. First, I’ve always thought that, whereas it’s fine for non-actors to read The Sonnets, which have no dramatic context, only someone who can act should be allowed to perform passages from the plays. But I managed to convince myself that roughly the first half of Enobarbus’s description can be read as a stand-alone poem, with no dramatic context. Second, I’ve never quite been able to picture Cleopatra herself – a problem, given the vividness of the visual imagery in the passage.

But that problem (admittedly a minor one) was resolved for me a few weeks ago, during the trial of the Grillo sisters, on the day Nigella Lawson arrived to give evidence. As she performed her now famous walk to the courthouse entrance, back straight, head held regally high, raven-black hair swept back, the expression on her Biblically beautiful face projecting imperious disdain, lips set in a proud, contemptuous pout, I suddenly thought – Cleopatra!

I wonder if anyone’s thought of asking her if she can act.

Anyway, the idea seemed to tickle the other members of our poetry group. Here’s what I read:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.  
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' th' eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' th' marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th' air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature. 


  1. Charlie the Saatch18 January 2014 at 08:12

    You after my bird, Scott? Any bloke touches my princess, I swear I'll do time. You wouldn't want to end up in a tank of formaldehyde with half a sheep for company now, would you?

    1. No, but I'd quite enjoy seeing you plastered all over in six inches of elephant dung. Definite improvement.

  2. "He yielded himself to go with Cleopatra, where he spent and lost in childish sports [as a man might say] and idle pastimes the most precious thing a man can spend, as Antiphon saith, and that is, time."
    Plutarch on Marcus Antonius.

    You want to get a grip on yourself, my sahn!

    1. Actually, I generally avoid getting a grip on myself these days, Sid. Probably not good for the old blood pressure, you know.