The queen of media - the changing images of an icon

Published on Wednesday 23 February, 2011

This article was originally published in February 2011.

Cleopatra may have been born in 69BCE but she has remained a powerful icon ever since. Arguably no other figure in ancient history has been depicted so widely as this fascinating, and powerful woman.

Join us as we take a trip through her most enduring incarnations on stage, in film, fashion, the world of celebrity and, of course, dance.

TheatreDame Judi Dench (photo by  siebbi via

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety"

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra at the start of the 17th century and many consider the role of Cleopatra to be one of the most complex female roles in his work. Famously, when Royal Shakespeare Director Peter Hall asked Judi Dench to play the title role in a staged, and then later televised, production she turned down the part claiming that her Cleopatra would be a “menopausal dwarf”.Kim Catrall (photo by gdcgraphics via However, Hall eventually coaxed Dench into the role for which she went on to win rave reviews from both theatre critics and TV audiences.

Last October Kim Cattrall, who plays Sex and the City's feisty man-eater Samantha, made her Shakespearian debut as Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse.


Screen legend, Theda Bara (photo courtesy of twm1340 via has filtered through the ages without a real face. Only a selection of coins depict her (as rather unattractive and hag-like) and a few busts are believed to portray the Egyptian queen, but these cannot be verified. However, almost everyone in the Western world could conjure a picture of Cleopatra if asked to do so. But without question this image will be of an actress portraying the queen on film.

Cleopatra has been a central character in over 15 major films and countless television programmes. The first cinematic portrayal of Cleopatra was in the silent film of 1917 starring seductive actress Theda Bara. Despite the film's popularity in its day, it was deemed profane under the Hay's Code in the 1930s and subsequently destroyed.

In 1945 Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains starred in the first large scale Hollywood film about Cleopatra, in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1898 play Caesar and Cleopatra. Despite carrying the tagline “The most lavish picture ever on the screen!” this film pales into insignificance compared to its 1960s successor.

Cleopatra, the 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison gave the world its most iconic images of Cleopatra. Adjusting for inflation, Cleopatra remains one of the most expensive movies ever made costing just under $300 million, nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. The lavish film contains 26,000 costumes, 65 of which were for Taylor alone, including a dress made from 24-carat gold cloth. At a cost of $194,800 this was the highest ever costume budget for a single screen actor.

Angelina Jolie, photo Gage SkidmoreCleopatra looks set to dominate cinemas again in a new 3D film starring Angelina Jolie as the Queen of the Nile. Similar to real life couple Taylor and Burton it is rumoured that Angelia’s husband Brad Pitt is to play Mark Antony. The screenplay of this forthcoming blockbuster is already risking a budget that rivals its 1963 predecessor.


Gold coiled snake braceletPleats draped over one shoulder, sharp black bob with thick, blunt fringe and sweeping jet black eyeliner; Cleopatra remains a fashion muse for the 21st century. September 2010 saw the catwalks awash with black bobs and kohl eyeliner, insect jewellery, bejewelled collars and regal bibs, and Egyptian-inspired body armour pieces for a modern take on Cleopatra chic. Favoured by designers like Vivienne Westwood and L.A.M.B. (the fashion label founded by singer Gwen Stefani) the ‘Miss Cleo’ look proved Cleopatra is every inch the modern ‘it’ girl. According to Christina Mannatt, Cultural Editor at the trend forecaster, “The Miss Cleo trend has a royal aura without being ostentatious – it is all about the accessories.”

Celebrity style

Katy Perry, photo José GoulãoDespite their own success and influence on style and fashion modern day celebrities often choose to channel Cleopatra’s distinctive appearance and style to guarantee them increased column inches. Halle Berry sported a Cleopatra-like hairdo on the September cover of Vogue magazine last year.

Pop-princess Katy Perry turned Cleo-queen for the cover of her new single, ET, due for release later this year. Renowned for her colourful image and playful single covers Katy Perry revealed on her Facebook page in January that she has traded the bubble-gum playfulness for dark-bobbed hair and striking eye make-up with the trademark Cleopatra sweeping black eyeliner.

Autumn 2010 saw Cleopatra inspire another cover girl, but this time for a more inanimate celebrity. Barbie, arguably the superstar of dolls, graced the cover of Barbie Collector Catalogue as Cleopatra, the toy manufacturer’s latest marriage of divine queen and mass commercialism. According to Barbie Collector Magazine, “History and striking elegance meet to create an extraordinary doll.” The commemorative Barbie doll, designed by Linda Kyaw which was priced at $100, is now sold out.


Despite Cleopatra's dominance on stage and on film her story has not featured greatly in the world of dance. Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in 1909 with their production Cléopâtre which saw Ida Rubinstein dance the title role. Although originally presented in 1908 as Nuit d'Egypte by Mikhail Fokine, Ballets Russes' debut in Paris marked the beginning of a whole new era in ballet and the star-studded opening night audience included Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Jean Cocteau.

The last full length version of Cleopatra as a ballet was Houston Ballet’s production choreographed by their Artistic Director, and former dancer with Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, Ben Stevenson. Cleopatra had its UK premiere at Sadler's Wells, London, in April 2001.

Almost a decade later, Cleopatra is getting ready to again take centre stage in Northern Ballet's sumptuous new production. David Nixon has long been fascinated by this enduring icon and set to Claude-Michel Schönberg's haunting new score, this unmissable ballet explores Cleopatra's sensational rise to power, her scandalous romances with the most powerful men in history and her ultimate downfall.