From Kim Cattrall to Elizabeth Taylor: Tennessee Williams's ageing heroine is an archetype that can be traced back to Shakespeare's Cleopatra

 

Fresh from playing Cleopatra in last year's Chichester production of Antony and Cleopatra, Kim Cattrall now takes to the stage as Alexandra Del Lago, the faded Hollywood star in flight from what she imagines (wrongly, it turns out) is a disastrous attempt at a cinematic come-back.

The pill-popping, hash-taking, vodka-swigging monstre sacrée, with the curled-at-the-edges glamour, the bedside oxygen-machine, and campy ball-breaking wit was portrayed at the National Theatre in 1994 by Clare Higgins. It's no coincidence that this actress also made a terrific, wittily flamboyant impression as Shakespeare's wily, self-dramatising "serpent of old Nile". For, in the world of divas-in-distress who determine to defy time and fate – they range from that regal relic of the silent movie era, Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard to characters derived from the ageing Maria Callas as she strove to weather, in bleakly elegant Parisian retirement, the wreckage of her incomparable singing voice and to survive Onassis's romantic defection to Jackie Kennedy – Cleopatra is the comeback queen par excellence.

Norma Desmond recoils from the expression "comeback" in Billy Wilder's superlative 1950 film, set in a noir Los Angeles. "I hate that word. It's 'return' – a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for leaving them..." she snarls at William Holden's Joe Gillis, the sexy young down-on-his-luck screenwriter whom she lures into her fatal web. A laconic/baroque lowdown on Tinseltown as a hotbed of opportunists, who will stop at nothing – even sleeping with a cracked, grandiose diva – Sunset Boulevard has many of the archetypal elements of this sub-genre.

There's the semi-complicit corruption of the young man; the ambiguously sincere and growing hold the diva has over him; and the way that laughter at (and/or with) the monstre sacrée is mingled with pity for her. The pathetic/ludicrous scene of the New Year's Eve party where Gillis gradually realises that he is the only guest, or the visit to Paramount Studios to Cecil B DeMille's real-life set of Samson and Delilah are infused with the sense of the gap between the royalty she was and the nonentity she has become. And Swanson brilliantly plays an extreme gothic variant on herself. Norma shows Gillis footage of Queen Kelly, the 1929 silent-screen flop that had put the kibosh on Swanson's career, while the faithful butler and former husband who fakes her fan mail and keeps her illusions intact, is played, with excruciating irony, by that film's director, the once-legendary Erich von Stroheim.

Where Sunset Boulevard uses a would-be comeback queen to make a critical statement about the morality of Hollywood, Sweet Bird of Youth – albeit focused in part on a corrupt white supremacist Southern politician – essentially directs its attention inward. Tennessee Williams projects rackety, yearningly romantic aspects of himself into both the leading characters – the ageing movie goddess Alexandra Del Lago, and Chance Wayne, the golden boy turned gigolo who joins her as a kept man. Played in the new production by rising Broadway star Seth Numrich, Chance drives the befuddled, Alexandra to his home town of St Cloud. Here he intends to make a comeback of his own with Heavenly, the politician's daughter and the love of his life, little knowing the lurid horrors that await him.

The enduring image of the play (and of the movie with its original theatre cast of Paul Newman and Geraldine Page) is of a bare-chested stud in white silk pyjamas lying on a bed in swanky hotel room while being manipulated by a raddled diva. "Well I may have done better," Alexandra drawls, moving her finger tips over Chance's torso, "but God knows I have done worse". Williams had great difficulty with this bitterly funny, poetically haunting and socially frightening play. Partly the problem was integrating the political concerns; partly, it's that Chance exists uncomfortably on both a sordid and a symbolic plane.

The piece is haunted by the depredations of time – Chance, the might-have-been with a purity still at his core, touches the hard-bitten seeming has-been Alexandra by the very clumsiness of his attempts to blackmail her. She realises that her heart is not defunct, after all, and that they are versions of one another, though it is Chance who is truly tragic. The very intelligent 1989 TV adaptation, starring Elizabeth Taylor (below, as Cleopatra) and Mark Harmon and directed by Nicolas Roeg, makes it clear that Alexandra's renewed career is on diminished terms (she's cast as someone's mother – a status to which Taylor herself never stooped) emphasising yet another form of castration at the close.

And the name of Norma Desmond was inevitably muttered by some of those contemplating the fate of Maria Callas, vocally burnt out, yet making a comeback tour with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano (himself a shadow of his former self) in 1973-74. The greatest diva of them all has, alas, continued to be unlucky in her fictional afterlife. Portrayed by Fanny Ardant in Franco Zeffirelli's spectacularly cheesy 2002 film Callas Forever, she eventually demands the destruction of a movie version of Carmen that has, in this semi-fictional film at least, brought her out of retirement because she was able to act and yet lip-synch to a recording from her glory days. Better to be heard live and authentic, however flayed the voice, is the principle to which our heroine returns. And there are shades of her in the eponymous Prima Donna, Regine St Laurent, mysteriously self-imprisoned in her Paris apartment, in Rufus Wainwright's strangely underpowered operatic homage to the music of Puccini and Gounod.

Regine is anxious about her planned comeback. Which is why Shakespeare's Cleopatra should be the patron saint of this bunch of divas. With Antony dead and herself at the mercy of Octavius Caesar, this unscrupulous, camp, cunning and thoroughly showbiz royal diva manages to outface a string of humiliations as she stage-manages a glorious final auto-apotheosis. You don't have to be able to play Cleopatra to portray Williams's screen diva, but it helps. And that's because the former is veritably the comeback queens' comeback queen.

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