WHEN SHAKESPEARE'S Cleopatra contemplates the grisly prospect of being led to Rome as Caesar's captive, one of her chief anxieties is that she'll be forced to watch the city's transvestite actors travestying her in skits: "I shall see/ Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I' th' posture of a whore".
Originally, these lines would have carried a certain irony, for in Shakespeare's time, the role would have been played by a young male actor.
They regain some of that frisson now in Giles Block's new Jacobean-dress, the all-male Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe where the part of Cleopatra is performed with a beguiling persuasiveness and compelling mercuriality by the venue's artistic director, Mark Rylance.
With Cleopatra, we now see, a transvestite performance can enhance your sense of the queen as a fluid, elusive actress who enjoys drunken gender- bending games with her lover and who always, even as she goes into her final glorious apotheosis, keeps you guessing about the degree of sincerity behind the role-play.
The amusing irony is that some of our recent female Cleopatras have come across much more as hard drag-acts than Rylance. At 39, he's the same age as the heroine at the end of the play, but he looks a good deal younger.
Sweet-faced under a mane of curly black hair and laced into lovely low- cut period dresses whose bodices give him the seductive hint of a cleavage, Rylance's Cleopatra gambols and twirls about barefoot in a dizzy demonstration of girlish guilelessness like some young heroine from a pastoral.
Rylance, one second, maternally stroking a messengers hand; the next, biting lumps off it like a spoilt child, reacts with a disarmingly instinctual swiftness, moment by moment, that increases the comedy by blurring the line between the calculated and the compulsive.
There's also the strain of delicacy and touching sensitivity in this Cleopatra as is shown by a telling detail in the final scene.
True to the spirit of a play which has to keep struggling against farce as it moves towards tragic dignity, the clown who brings the poisonous asps here forgets court protocol and parks himself familiarly on the throne where the suicidal monarch is just about to turn herself into an icon.
Her wig now removed, revealing a cropped-scalp riddles with alopecia Rylance's Cleopatra stoops and, in an oddly Christ-like gesture, kisses the clown's filthy feet before dismissing him.
It's a pity that Paul Shelley's Antony remains, when dying and hoisted by ropes up to the central gallery, more the kind of brisk efficient type who would run a self-help group than a hero who would let himself go - even for the love of such a delectable Cleopatra as this one.
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