Buffoonery is always fascinatingly and dangerously close in this production. It opens with a mumming prequel that imagines how the lovers might have been extemporised by the "quick comedians" of Rome who make Cleopatra shudder. This device sets a sceptical frame that allows, for once, the possibility that the ageing lovers are indeed a little ridiculous. The ponderous glamour of Rome and Egypt that often surrounds the play is also jettisoned, and on the Broadsides' customary plain stage, Rutter and Ishia Bennison's Cleopatra must establish the characters' dignity afresh.
Dignity, though, is something that so often seems to slide away from Shakespeare's Antony. As the mythic Hercules could be a figure of fun, so can Antony, not only to the sniggering politicians of Caesar's party, but in the hot contradictions of which Enobarbus despairs, and to Cleopatra herself. In the superb early scene where the queen accuses him of dissembling his love, she and her excellent women (Julie Livesey and Deborah McAndrew) interrupt his fumbling explanations with bursts of mock applause before Bennison transforms the moment with that amazing piece of theatrical sincerity, "O my oblivion is a very Antony/ And I am all forgotten!" In this realm of female sovereignty, Herculean Antony is a blunderer.
And after all, it is Cleopatra's play, as Bennison's wonderful performance ensures. Rightly enough, she has no regard for queenliness in the high English fashion, but is coquettish, vulnerable, violent and witty. Yet in such lines as "my honour is not yielded but conquered merely", we hear in that "merely" that not only can she match them all man for man in pride and energy, she inhabits a different sphere - "fire and air" indeed. When the soldier says - a magically staged scene, this - "Hercules, whom Antony loved/ Now leaves him", we know that Cleopatra, who so scorns fortune's changes, will never do likewise. Thus does Antony become more than manly.
Back among the earthbound heroes, Dave Hill is a marvellous, muck-and- nettles Enobarbus whose laconic bass brilliantly counterpoints the famous eloquence. Mike Poulton's original programme notes tell us that Octavius used hot walnut shells to remove his body hair. Andrew Cryer's portrayal persuades you he just left some cooling in the wings. John Gully also stands out in a strong company. I hope that coach companies from Billingham to Wycombe will be giving thanks for this very fine touring production.
n Dean Clough, Halifax, to 7 Oct. Booking: 01422 344555. Touring details: 01422 369704Reuse content