Sat 8 Sep 2012
Claire Mahave as Charmian
Imagine being Charmian.
You’re steeped in rich culture, surrounded by opulence. Slaves and servants perform menial daily tasks, and you know your place and your mission in life. You are a servant yourself, but a special one. You are a handmaiden to a living goddess.
The center of your world, around which everything revolves, is Cleopatra. She is brilliant and charismatic, cunning and ambitious. She was born into power, lost it at times, but held on through her wits, her marital and sexual alliances, and, probably, fratricide. She is the first of her line of inbred royalty to learn the local language, and she is descended from Isis. She can keep you in luxury or beat you to death on a whim.
As Charmian, how do you feel about your life? You’ve known nothing, else, of course, unless you traveled to Rome with your mistress. But Egypt is cosmopolitan, and you certainly meet people who are different, who have entirely different worldviews, traditions, and beliefs. Do you ever question your life? Do you ever wonder who you would be under different circumstances? Would you change your life, and your death, if you could?
I am a second-waver. That is to say, I came of age during the time in which feminism was a wave that had not yet crested. (Did you know, for example, that the first marital rape law, which made it illegal for a husband to rape his wife, was not enacted until 1976?) By the time I was born, in 1970, it seemed to me to be generally accepted that women were equal and should get equal pay (though we still don’t, 40 years later.) I found out through the years that my assumption was not nationally held, let alone representational of the world at large.
I grew up devouring books and shifting my worldview accordingly with what new information I could absorb. I was an especial fan of historical fiction, and reading this genre gave me insight into just how much better life is for women in modern days, and I have always asked myself the questions I posed for Charmian. Who would I be, if I had been born in England in 1407? If I were a blonde, blue-eyed child in Hitler’s Germany, what choices would I have made? What character would I have formed in modern-day Ghana?
As an actress, it is not my job to judge characters or their choices. My focus needs to be on what makes people tick—what motivates them to act as they do and what shapes their thinking. Of particular interest to me is how women survived in unquestionably male-dominated times. Cleopatra was a queen in a time of kings and warfare, and she made her choices accordingly. Charmian survived in the same world, but with different paths to take.
It has been interesting to watch audiences react to the sensuality in our portrayal of Egypt; in this world, in this age, it is considered hedonistic and decadent. Because we are so close to our audience, we can hear every sharp intake of breath and see expressions of shock, disapproval, and titillation. But we modern Americans take options for granted and our freedom as a given. How different would life be for us a different time and place? How much of who we are is shaped by our surroundings?
Imagine Cleopatra had she been born in the United States in 1973 instead of 69 BC. What could she have done—this determined genius—in the modern world? How would her story be different?