Dame Edith was not a beautiful woman by any standards - short, stout, hooded eyes and a rather plain face - but she was playing Millamant in The Way of the World and Millamant is described as the most beautiful woman in London and the most desired. A close friend was astounded that when Dame Edith glided on stage she was indeed incredibly beautiful and sexually desirable.
After the performance the friend demanded to know how she had done it? Make-up? Lighting?
"No," said Dame Edith "I sit quietly in my dressing room before each performance and looking in the mirror say 'You are beeauutiFul! You are beeauutiFul! You are beeauutiful!'* If I believe it so will the audience."
I made this birthday card (above) a few years ago featuring some of the actresses who have played Cleopatra - Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Bernhardt and Dame Edith. On stage I've seen Zoe Caldwell and Maggie Smith and wish I had seen Judi Dench and Frances de la Tour as Shakespeare's seductive Serpent of the Nile. None of them great beauties but all of them capable of convincing you otherwise.
Now it appears the woman herself wouldn't have made it to the finals of the Miss Thebes 28BC pageant. A story in yesterday's Guardian reveals that a coin of the period shows thin lips, pointed nose and sharp chin - a rather shrewish looking woman. Hardly the creature conjured up by Vivian Leigh as Shaw's sex kitten or Elizabeth Taylor in that over-blown, over-budget studio wrecker from the '70s.
It appears that like Dame Edith and all those other actresses the real Cleopatra knew how to convince her audience that she was "beauutiFul."
*I admit it, this is an incredibly futile attempt to put Evans' viola-like voice into phonics.