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Cleopatra's infinite variety seduces audience

Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until September 7.

It starts with a debauched romp and ends with two prolonged deaths. In between Shakespeare spins some of his finest lines that remain in the brain long after the asp has finally suckled the life from Egypt's queen.

This is a play that depends on strong performances by the two main characters, and the RSC's production does not disappoint.

Antony Byrne, it seems, was born to play Mark Antony. Apart from sharing the same h-less name, he has the bulk, the bearing, the broad brow and the booming voice.

As for Josette Simon, she captures Cleopatra's "infinite variety" in a dazzlingly dizzying display of mood changes that confound even those closest to her.

That's how she survives as a powerful women in a man's world. Early on we see her riding on Antony's broad shoulders, light as a feather yet capable of bringing down "the triple pillar of the world."

Under Iqbal Khan's assured direction, that process unfolds in an all too believable way. It helps that Robert Innes Hopkins has designed a slickly adaptable set that encompases ancient Rome, ancient Egypt and the turbulent seas between.

In a strong supporting cast, Andrew Woodall is particularly impressive as the normally straight-speaking Enobarbus who comes over all poetic while trying to explain Cleopatra's seductive hold over his master.

The old soldier delivers Shakespeare's famously seductive description of her "burnished throne" burning "on the water" in an accent that wouldn't sound out of place on a market stall in EastEnders.

Bringing bad news to either Antony or Cleopatra proves to be a risky business. One messenger is kneed in the groin by the unpredictable queen; another is whipped on Antony's orders -an uncharacteristically mean move and further evidence that his infatuation is undermining his judgement.

Towards the end we see him on his knees, enduring a somewhat prolonged suicide that at least allows him to be dragged to utter his final words in Cleopatra's lap.

After that there's supposed to be "nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon". But there is in this production. Cleopatra's "immortal longings" bring about a couple of startling visual revelations as she prepares her own suicide.

She remains unpredictable to the end.

Pictured: Josette Simon (Cleopatra) and Antony Byrne (Mark Antony)

Winner!