Twelfth Night, Lowry, Salford<br/>Antony and Cleopatra, Swan, Stratford<br/> Much Ado about Nothing, Swan, Stratford

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The Independent Culture

Fifteen years ago, Cheek By Jowl staged an unforgettable all-male As You Like It with the young Adrian Lester as Rosalind and the Forest of Arden evoked by just strips of green silk streaming down into a bare space. Now on tour, the company's boys-only Twelfth Night beautifully echoes that earlier Shakespearean romcom of sexual confusions, though this time the cast is additionally all-Russian (with English surtitles) - a world-class product of director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod's years abroad.

At first, when Olivia is still in mourning, black banners hang in a near-empty space. Her home is a dark house where her maid, Maria, whispers anxiously to keep the noise down. In the second half, when new loves supplant grief, everything becomes creamy with hints of a Chekhovian orchard (linen suits, panama hats), albeit Illyria has a dreamy quality of any time (1920s, 1930s, post-Communist) and anywhere you fancy. Donnellan's ensemble make some characters amusingly Russian: a terrific slurring Sir Toby tussling with a bulk-buy of vodka bottles. At the same time, Feste has a very English-going-on-early Hollywood look about him, like an extremely camp Buster Keaton who also sings jazz.

This is a production imbued with charm, a gentle intensity, delightful flurries of farce (including judo) and fresh interpretations. To take a few examples, when Viola (disguised as the manservant Cesario) comes to woo on Duke Orsino's behalf, Olivia and Maria and Feste (all veiled) truly confound this suitor by circling around and actually sharing Olivia's replies: an extraordinary image of multiple identities dancing before your eyes.

Donnellan's interspliced scenes also create a haunting sense of simultaneous lives and paths soon destined to meet. At the close, while light question marks hang over the twins' marriages, new-forged out of previous confusions, there's a wonderfully droll happy ending for the problematically jilted Antonio. He hooks up with Feste on the wedding-party dance floor. Olivia's steward, Malvolio - having fallen in love with far more desperate eagerness than pomposity - is also reintegrated after his humiliations. He is back in his tail coat impeccably serving champagne but then steps forward, right at the end, to snarl, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." Donnellan's reshuffling of speeches is cheeky but also sensitive, actually bringing out how the play lives in your mind (where Malvolio does, surely, have the last memorable word).

As for the all-male issue, I've seen actresses bring more subtle complexities to Viola/ Cesario's pained love scenes with Olivia and Orsino. I suspect it might be very different again - though potentially near-taboo? - if the women were played in authentic Elizabethan style by pre-pubescent boys rather than grown men. That said, an intricate weave of gay male desires springs into focus here. Ilia Ilyin's sturdy, sweetly nervous Maria does seem intrinsically female and adorable, and the twins are such look-alikes that you think you're in a hall of mirrors. This should also make a fascinating comparison with Edward Hall's all-male company, Propeller, who will tackle the same play at the Old Vic next year.

Meanwhile, in Stratford, Gregory Doran's staging of Antony and Cleopatra - starring Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter - is far and away the best production that I've seen to date in the RSC's Complete Works Festival. It is plain good. By that I mean there are virtually no obtrusive gimmicks. It's in Ancient Roman and Egyptian period costume with only a few cloaks in camouflage fabric nudging you to see modern parallels in this story of conflict - or rather, in Antony's case, of split loyalties - between East and West. Actually, Doran essentially makes it a split between two cultures of leisure and hard slog, with Cleopatra's giggly entourage idling in white silk robes while Antony's impatient soldiers kick around in war-battered breastplates. Stewart's Antony, having gone native, is evidently torn between amorous lounging and professional duties: that Monday morning feeling of having to get out of bed and fight the Battle of Actium. This production is also sharp on macho competitiveness and political manoeuvres, with John Hopkins as a feverishly insecure and ambitious Octavius Caesar.

A few of the cast bellow their lines and, on the night I attended, Walter didn't quite capture the poignant delicacy of Cleopatra's death scene. But essentially, she and Stewart are both superlatively natural: full of laughter and loving warmth; never striking exotic or heroic poses; ultimately devastated and seeming to age before your eyes.

Much Ado about Nothing is less impressive. Marianne Elliot's production takes a while to warm up with Tamsin Greig (from Green Wing) and Joseph Millson as the comically resistant lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. Greig often seems slightly too sour, however she does get sparkier. Millson is deliciously funny when in denial and breathtaking in his passionate tenderness at the end. The setting of 1950's Cuba is also an excuse for some sizzling jazz.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Twelfth Night': touring to 17 June, 020 7382 7281; 'Antony and Cleopatra' and 'Much Ado': to 14 and 12 October respectively, 0870 609 1110

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