When Fiona Shaw triumphed as Richard II at the National, the casting drew its validity from the way it emphasised the childlike arrestiveness of this monarch. With Cleopatra, a transvestite performance can, as Rylance proves here, enhance your sense of your queen as a fluid and compulsive actress who has enjoyed playing drunken gender-bending games with her lover and who always, even as she goes into her final, glorious apotheosis, keeps you guessing about the exact degree of sincerity behind the role- play.
At 39, Rylance is the same age as the heroine at the end of the drama, but he presents a Cleopatra who likes to put on an artfully artless show of guileless girlishness. Sweet-faced under a mane of curly black hair and laced into lovely, low-cut period outfits that give him the seductive hint of a cleavage, Rylance skips about barefoot, like some innocent heroine from pastoral. The irony is that he comes across as less of a toughened drag-act than some of our recent female Cleopatras (Helen Mirren, Frances de la Tour), who have made the queen's capricious volte- faces look crashingly premeditated. But Rylance reacts, moment by moment, with a disarming instinctual swiftness (one second maternally stroking a messenger's hand, the next, biting lumps out of it like a spoilt child): the effect is witty and tantalising because it blurs the line between what is calculated and compulsive in the character's behaviour.
There is also a moving strain of delicacy and sensitivity in this Cleopatra, as is shown by an excellent directorial detail in the final scene where - her wig now removed, revealing a scalp riddled with alopecia, and wearing a simple white shift - she braces herself for her self-transcending suicide. True to the spirit of the play, which has to keep battling against farce as it pushes its way towards tragic dignity, the clown who brings the poisonous asps commit a comic act of unwitting lese-majeste. He parks himself familiarly on the throne where Cleopatra is just about to turn herself into an icon. With a newfound maturity and humility, Rylance's queen confirms her right to reascend that seat by stooping and, in an oddly Christ-like gesture, kissing the clown's filthy feet before he leaves.
Paul Shelley is a disappointingly brisk and efficient Antony, with none of the requisite faded glamour. But in the grilling heat of the current Globe performances, Rylance is well worth risking sunstroke for.
To 26 Sept (0171 401 9919)
A version of this review appeared in later editions of Saturday's paperReuse content