Kim Cattrall, slinky Samantha Jones of Sex and the City, returned to her home town last night and sailed up the Nile in triumph. After a jerky start, she proved a svelte and melodious Cleopatra, barefooted and skittish of movement, sharp of tongue and swift of temper.
She has been helped towards this success by one of the best Cleopatras in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Janet Suzman, her director, with whom she worked on the London stage 10 years ago.
Since then, Cattrall, who was born in Liverpool before emigrating with her family to Toronto, returning to train as an actress in London, has appeared with Eddie Izzard in a David Mamet play at the Donmar Warehouse and, earlier this year, as an irresistible Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives in the West End.
She's paired with a grizzled but idiosyncratic Jeffery Kissoon as Antony, and the two of them are clearly struggling towards the end of an affair that was too good to last, swamped in political developments and pressures from Rome, where the bloodless young Octavius Caesar is pushing for a tripartite coalition.
Suzman, with designer Peter McKintosh, stages the tragedy simply and sensibly on a mostly bare stage surrounded by brick walls, with light black curtains and smoking lanterns descending for the pleasures of the East. There's a stage wide gantry that serves well as a military viewpoint, the prow of Pompey's boat and the upper level from which the defeated, dying Antony is winched down (not up, for a change) to Cleopatra's dark monument.
There, Cattrall and her women brace themselves for the magnificent last act, at first trembling at the prospect of a humiliating procession through Syria, then outwitting their captors with the deadly asp. Cattrall's invocation of her splendid soldier, islands and realms falling from his pockets as plates, his livery a promenade of crowns, is breathtaking.
The play is full of so many messages and relayed commands and bad news that you wonder if anything similar could ever be written in this age of text and tweet. The way people talk about each other and impart information is so glorious and interesting, it defies the modern grunt and groan of daily intercourse, and renews our appetite for language.
Not just when Ian Hogg's authoritative Enobarbus describes the barge she sat in – audible intake of breath around the auditorium, as usual – but in the exchanges with the fluting eunuch Mardian (Offue Okegbe) and the flayed Thidias – interestingly doubled with Pompey by a youthful Oliver Hoare.
The epic and the battles are all in the language, no need of glorious Technicolor, as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton discovered to their cost. Suzman brings her actors right into our laps, even in the formality of the Playhouse's proscenium, and the couple's one other gaudy night is beautifully played by Kissoon and Cattrall, Cleo suddenly remembering it's her birthday and dissolving in giggles.
Oddly, the marital pawn in the political game, Octavia, is played by a tall blond man, but as Mark Sutherland also plays Antony's loyal henchman Eros, we can perhaps detect a deliberate ambisexual ploy; and this Octavius might well have a peculiar sibling.
Kissoon is a heaving, blubbering, charismatic man of war with a silver hip-flask. But the night belongs to Cattrall, who rises to the challenge of the greatest Shakespearean female role magnificently.