Theatre: Cleopatra as you've never seen him

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Antony and Cleopatra

Globe, London

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Open Air Theatre, London

Easy Virtue

Festival Theatre, Chichester

At the end of at the Globe, Mark Rylance takes his bow standing at the end of the back row in a square of 16 actors. Such flamboyant modesty is a shame: it robs us of the chance to shout "bravo" - or should it be "brava"? Rylance plays Cleopatra, and it is the most interesting performance in town.

He makes his entrance wearing a wig of black hair drawn tightly back from a high forehead, and falling in curls down his back; his eyebrows are black. The look is faintly reminiscent of an actress I couldn't place at the time. He is barefoot, with a bracelet round his ankle, and he is never still. His Cleopatra, dressed first in a long green frock and a tight white bodice to show a little cleavage, is a regal gypsy. He is energetic, impatient, petulant, vain, flirtatious and funny. All in the first scene.

The part was written to be played by a boy, but Rylance does not play a boy. As they exit, he kisses Paul Shelley, his Antony, full and long on the lips. In fact, he is much the same age as Cleopatra, who was a mature 39 when she died. Even so, it is an idea that could easily turn into a camp gimmick, but Rylance avoids the pitfall. Technically, it is a precise performance, well spoken, with great attention paid to detail. (His sudden distress, sympathy and confusion at Enobarbus's tearful vision of Antony's coming defeat is splendid.)

Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, leads from the front and takes risks. There are moments when he nearly goes over the top, but he manages to stay just the right side of ex-cess. "Other women cloy/ The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/ Where most she satisfies"; it is true enough. Shelley is a vulnerable Antony; John McEnery a moving Enobarbus, and other men playing women (Danny Sapani as Charmian, James Gillan as Iras and Toby Cockerell as Octavia) are consistently convincing, but I was impatient when Rylance was off the stage. After an hour, he was being applauded at the end of his scenes. In the death scene, gorgeously robed in gold, he got tears to prick the eyes, and raised the right melancholy laughter. Only in this scene did I realise who he reminded me of: Elizabeth Taylor. It is also the most surprising performance in town.

What's wrong with this production is what is often wrong at the Globe. The costumes look as if they have come out of a capacious Elizabethan clothes basket; the accents are all over the place, or, to be specific, from England, Ireland and the United States. (Michael Rudko, who brings Cleopatra her asp, speaks persuasively in an accent from the Deep South.) Some of the smaller parts are played by deeply inexperienced actors. Apart from a couple of tables, and a few chairs and cushions, the stage is bare. But the trumpeters and horn players are excellent, and the director, Giles Block, has paid attention to developing character and clear verse-speaking.

The other problem is the Globe itself. It may be accessible to a wide audience, but it is pitilessly uncomfortable, especially when you are sitting in the sun during a matinee. (They gave me a hat; I needed sun- block too.) As you settle down on those hard, backless benches for three- and-a-half hours of Shakespeare, you think it had better be good. And so it was.

At the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, you can tell when the interval is coming by the smoke rising stage left and the faint smell of the burgers on the barbecue. The atmosphere is companionable: it's a multi-cultural audience, with more families and fewer Americans than in the West End. As the sun goes down, you can watch them watching the play. My impression was that women laughed more freely at the smutty jokes in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum than men did.

This is an early Stephen Sondheim piece (1962), and one of the first for which he wrote the lyrics as well as the music. As he says, there are no gods, no fate, nothing grim, nothing Greek, it's comedy tonight. There are hardly any memorable tunes, but the music drives the show on at an irresistible pace. The book, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, has some inspired moments ("My father will turn in his grave"/ "He's still alive"/ "This will kill him"), but the reason A Funny Thing lingers brightly in the memory is that the part of Pseudolus is a vehicle for great comedians. Zero Mostel played it on Broadway and Frankie Howerd, in a high camp performance that was both morally and physically dishevelled, turned the part into an industry.

Roy Hudd does not try to emulate Howerd. His Pseudolus is plump inside his toga, and his silvery hair blows in the breeze. Despite bare knees, Hudd looks more like an alderman than a slave, masterminding the action rather than manipulating it. His charm soon opens a friendly, confiding relationship with the audience. He is a likeable man, and it is a charming performance, despite the faint air of end-of-the-pier amateurishness. The director, Ian Talbot, clearly feels enthusiasm is more important than discipline, but the twittering eunuchs in the bawdy-house make a good running joke. Even as an overbearing, frustrated wife, Sophie Blake cannot disguise her allure, and Natasha Bain shows off the longest, loveliest thighs in the London theatre. It's an entertaining night out and you can park the car at the gate.

Noel Coward would not be at all pleased with his centenary celebrations. The current productions of Hay Fever and Private Lives are examples of crude revisionism rather than fond revivalism. I do not believe he would have liked the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Easy Virtue either. The play is Coward's updated version of a Victorian problem play, and, in other hands, it could prove an interesting period piece. Unfortunately, director Maria Aitken has not served the Master well.

She changes the nationality from French to American of the heroine, Larita, a woman of dubious morals - she reads Proust - who meets a nice young Englishman at the tables in Monte Carlo and marries him. She funks the second-act curtain, when Larita ought to throw a cushion at a statue of the Venus de Milo, and collapse laughing as it shatters.

The repressed, depressed and oppressed members of the dysfunctional, upper-middle-class Whittaker family are performed skilfully, notably by Michael Jayston and Jenny Quayle, but it must be familiar territory for them. Greta Scacchi, who walks out of the family she had mistakenly married into, is neither quite charming enough, nor sexy enough to be a French vamp. Or even an American one.

`': Globe, SE1 (0171 401 9919), in rep to 26 September. `A Funny Thing Happened ... ': Open Air Theatre, NW1 (0171 486 2431), in rep to 31 August. `Easy Virtue': Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312), in rep to 2 October

Robert Butler returns next week

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