When your latest play runs for a bum-numbing three hours plus you’d better make sure you can keep the attention of the punters.

Antony and Cleopatra certainly has all the right ingredients. A lead who can reasonably be described as a Hollywood A-lister; a heavyweight director who has form with the material; and a strong lead cast.

That the production casts Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra – one of the most famous femmes fatales in literature and a scouser to boot – is a huge coup. That it has Janet Suzman as the director is another. And the set and costumes look wonderful; effortlessly portraying ancient Rome and Egypt with little more than flourishes.

However, things get off to a little bit of a wobbly start. Kim Cattrall looks the part but doesn’t quite sound right. She first comes across a little, how shall we put it, Thatcher. And then sounds the spit of Janet Suzman; all a little too regal and stilted.

Jeffery Kissoon, on the other hand, appears right at home among the florid dialogue and verbosity. The rhythm and cadence feel spot on – his Marc Antony well past his best but still a fearful force to be reckoned with – and Kissoon inhabits the role.

As time goes on, roles become a little reversed, however. Cattrall as the waspish, flirtatious Cleopatra that develops excels and her final scene is quite super. Maybe she just needed time to settle into it.

As the play develops, and Marc Antony’s fortunes decline, Kissoon shows up the character as the swaggering, vaguely tragic figure he is – but it’s something of an overblown performance in places.

Perhaps the biggest problem in this production is that the romance – the absolutely lynchpin of the entire thing – doesn’t really convince. How much of this is down to Suzman’s determination that Cleopatra isn’t all about the heaving breasts may be a matter of opinion, but the decision to turn down the sizzle leaves this a rather anaemic romance.

That’s a problem when the whole play hinges on countries going to war, familial and blood betrayals and political machinations of Mandelsonian degrees – all because of Marc Antony’s love for Cleopatra. Maybe ambiguity over the romance is supposed to fill that void, but there’s not enough meat to it to be that bothered either way.

Another bizarre decision that detracts from the whole is the portrayal of Caesar’s sister, Octavia, by a man. Jarring and baffling, it simply didn’t work and overwhelmed those scenes.

Luckily, there are other things to enjoy enormously in this production. Ian Hogg as Enobarbus is a lesson is Shakespearean acting; a gentle and rather lovely piece of work that holds the attention whenever Hogg is on stage.

Equally superb is Martin Hutson as Caesar, playing the Roman leader like a fey Tory politician with secrets; all sideways looks and jittery body language. It’s a winning portrayal that might lend a few lost souls a more easily-digestable performance than some of the others on display – it also lends itself to a few much-needed moments of humour.

At over three hours, the production does make the investment of time worth it. There are fine performances on display, and much to admire. It’s a novel re-telling of an old story, but not all of those new elements come off.

What remains is a fascinating, if flawed, production that has some of the best heavyweight thesping you’re likely to see in Liverpool for some time.

Antony and Cleopatra
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 13 November

Images by Stephen Vaughan

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