Twelfth Night, Lowry, Salford
Antony and Cleopatra, Swan, Stratford
Much Ado about Nothing, Swan, Stratford

Who needs women anyway?

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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas