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How Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has enchanted Australians through the years

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Stratford, Ontario, saw the Cleopatra of one of the most notable Melbourne-born actors, Zoe Caldwell. I saw her when I was a child do an unforgettable Saint Joan. And then 40 or more years later I got a sudden, unexpected glimpse of the woman who says, when Antony dies "the odds is gone, / And there is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon."

I was interviewing her in some ramshackle, characterless room of the MTC and she seemed a bright, considerate old lady as she spoke of Dame Judith Anderson and Glenda Jackson, whom she had directed as Lady Macbeth.

And then, suddenly, she thought of her Cleopatra and she said as if the very witchery of the art of acting was a box of magic in her lap, "Ah, but when I did my Cleopatra" and she began to recite. For a moment she turned into Cleopatra and in the process shed decades.

Caldwell had become this woman on the edge of ceasing to be young and her eyes were full of an intentness because she was so satiated with her confidence that she could conquer. Christopher Plummer, her Antony, said she was far and away the greatest Cleopatra he had seen.

1963: American actor Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra.

Photo: Keystone

Another weird vision of Cleopatra came when Helen Morse did a scene from the play, solo, at a west Melbourne pub for one of those Shakespeare evenings organised by the actor Richard Piper. Morse did this snippet of Cleopatra and the whole crowd, which included Sigrid Thornton and Tom Burstall and the late Peter Corrigan, architect and stage designer – not an easy theatre crowd to please, this lot – were completely hushed. This was a Cleopatra full of all the quiet music in the world and all the sadness and all the desire, someone who carried every aspect of womanliness, all the sacredness of love and all the wantonness of lust in one comprehensive embrace and seemed to comprehend all that wisdom and wiliness and desolate desire in the turn of her voice and the twist of her mouth.

Melbourne productions of Antony and Cleopatra have been a bit thin on the ground mainly because it is such a Ring Cycle of a play: so many roles, so many scenes, such opulence and decadence and grandeur.

In 1912 Oscar Asche – the Melbourne Grammar boy who wrote the celebrated operetta Chu Chin Chow –did a spectacular and scenic version with his wife Lily Brayton as a redhead incarnation of Cleopatra at the Theatre Royal, a 4000-seater(!) at 246 Bourke Street. In 1910 he was Bolingbroke in Richard II with the legendary Herbert Beerbohm Tree – the original Henry Higgins in Pygmalion with Mrs Patrick Campbell.

Keith Michell, that great expatriate classical actor, played Mark Antony in The Spread of the Eagle, the BBC 1963 TV series of all the Roman plays. And in 1964, the year of Shakespeare's 400th anniversary, Michell did an anthology of Shakespeare: The First Four Hundred Years, which culminated with an abridged Antony and Cleopatra with Googie Withers as Cleopatra. She had been in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. She was the original Queen opposite Alec Guinness in Ionesco's Exit the King and lived long enough to appear in Shine with Geoffrey Rush.

This lightning version was a marvel here in Melbourne. Michell was a superbly rugged Antony – the combination of swagger and restraint in this soldierly superstar seems suited to Australian actors (it's not hard to imagine Mel Gibson in the role opposite his old Juliet, Judy Davis) though it will be interesting if Cate Blanchett ever plays Cleopatra to see who her Antony is.

But Withers was wonderfully regal and gleaming, an older woman who was every inch a queen dripping with sophistication and wit, by turns raging and indolent. I was grateful for the full-length Playbox Antony and Cleopatra with Lindy Davies, who possesses an intense and instinctive sense of dramatic space, playing Cleopatra to Frank Gallagher's Antony and with the young Robert Menzies as an authoritative Octavius. And then in 2001 Bell did it with Paula Arundell and William Zappa.

As with any Shakespeare, any version that gets the words out in a way that resembles human speech and evokes human feelings will have something.

But our sense of why Cleopatra is such a dazzling role often comes from DVDs and recordings and memories of great actors who have acted here but not as Cleopatra. And then there are the ones we imagine.

It's one of the sad might-have-beens of history that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor who took the world by storm and sizzled into stardom with the '60s Hollywood epic Cleopatra (1963), didn't actually film Shakespeare's version – especially as Cleopatra was directed by Joe Mankiewicz, the man who had made the superb MGM Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando in a staggering performance as the young Mark Antony.

We know what Burton and Taylor were like in Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew and in Mike Nichols' version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Imagine the shrieking and fury with which Taylor as Shakespeare's Cleopatra would have said "Some innocents 'scape not the thunderbolt" as she swears vengeance on the messenger.

Imagine how she would have negotiated the irony with which Cleopatra greets that wiseguy, Dolabella, "You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams. / Is't not your trick?" or a moment later when she says, "I dreamt there was an emperor Antony … His delights / Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above / The element they lived in." And then that extraordinary moment when Cleopatra holds the asp to her breast and says, "Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?" Think of what Taylor who is such a devastation of poignancy when the spell is broken and we learn of Martha's imaginary son in Virginia Woolf could have done with that death scene – a moment as startling and heartbreaking as the "Howl" in King Lear.

Burton would have had all the rhetorical grandeur for Antony but also the understatement when he thinks everything is over, his love is dead and he says, "Unarm, Eros; the long day's task is done, / And we must sleep." Yes, that elegiac quality but also the scathing irony to criticise his own decadence, "O, my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men!"

It helps a bit if Cleopatra is beautiful like Taylor. Vivien Leigh was and she didn't get to play the role on screen as she did Shaw's younger Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra. When she did Shakespeare's Cleopatra on stage with her husband Laurence Olivier, Ken Tynan refused to accept her as a great Cleopatra. He said – it sounds sexist, now – that she was simply "narrow where a dame should be narrow and broad where a broad should be broad".

She sounds a lot more than a dame in the abridged audio Antony and Cleopatra she recorded in 1960 – and here's the Australian connection – with Peter Finch as her Antony, his Australianness evident in the leathery but still resonant and burnished quality he brings to Shakespeare's verse.

Finch – who had originally been cast as Antony in the Mankiewicz/Taylor version – impressed Olivier so much when he toured here in 1948 with Leigh that he took him back to Britain with him where he promptly became Leigh's lover. But he's an intimately familiar Antony to any Australian audience, grand and slouching at the same time.

And with Leigh you can hear the not-quite-in-control sense of beauty, dazzling but disarrayed, that we get in her Blanche and in her Scarlett O'Hara.

Is there a reluctance for great actors to tour in this role? Most of the great Cleopatras of the last few decades have graced our stages but not as the woman who says in one of her most nonchalant lines, "My salad days, / When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, / To say as I said then!"

We all know that the greatest comic actor of her generation is Maggie Smith who did the Alan Bennett's tippling vicar's wife at Her Majesty's.

It's not hard to imagine the wry crackle of recollected ridiculousness that Smith might have brought to that line when she played Cleopatra at Stratford, Ontario, in Canada in 1976. She was appalled when someone asked if it should have come to Britain. "Oh no!" she gasped and then added with that almost dormouse honesty she can muster, "I'm glad I had a go."

Judi Dench who did Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale in Melbourne in 1970 did not do Antony and Cleopatra here but when she did it in London she said she was so indebted to Dame Peggy Ashcroft – the most notable Cleopatra of the previous generation (Michael Redgrave was her Antony) – she found she had to follow Ashcroft's stresses and cadences.

The most famous Shakespeare critic in the world, Harold Bloom, is tireless in his praise of the Cleopatra of Helen Mirren. Anyone who saw Glenda Jackson play Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at the Princess 40 years ago, as I did, will find it easy to imagine the degree of steel, of pure indomitable will, that can be heard in every line of her recordings of this most staggering of all roles for a woman. (Cleopatra was originally, of course, played by a boy, presumably a boy actor of genius). Cleopatra refers to this herself when she says how a young male actor would "boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore." And the actor Mark Rylance, from Wolf Hall, did indeed play the role.

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For my money though – and I'm thinking of some night in (was it the 1980s) when she filled the Dallas Brooks Hall with the crystalline goddess-like quality of her voice –– the Cleopatra I would like to have seen is Vanessa Redgrave's.

Bell Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra opens at the Arts Centre Melbourne Fairfax Studio on April 26.

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