Michael Coveney: Is Eve Best as Cleo casting aspersions on celebrity casting?

Eve Best has been cast as Cleopatra in the Globe's upcoming production
Eve Best has been cast as Cleopatra in the Globe's upcoming production
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

"I can't wait to be out of the spotlight," moaned Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, as pictures of her snogging an unidentified celebrity in a high-end London nightclub appeared on the front page of a tabloid this week.

Has nobody told her that she could embark on her campaign for anonymity right now by the simple expedient of not going to such places? It always intrigues me that stars, and the likes of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi, subject themselves to inquisition by the media by lunching and dining in restaurants where only the media lives. If you don't want to be seen, however famous you are, it's quite easy to arrange. Princess Diana, in celebrity terms, lived by the sword and died by it, too.

These thoughts were prompted, bizarrely, by the news that Eve Best, a really great actress, is to play Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe this summer, opening at the end of May. Eve is a star in my book, always has been, but she's not a "red carpet" celeb like so many lesser, rival talents. Probably because she's so obviously intelligent and, like Dame Maggie Smith, has an uncanny knack of blending into the background whatever she's up to.

But sometimes discretion can go too far. Eve's going to be Cleo, but who's her Ant? The Globe has announced that Phil Daniels – who endured the sad loss of his long-term partner Jan Stevens two years ago and had to leave the cast of James Graham's This House at the NT – will sing, presumably with a bit of a rasp, the third lead of Enobarbus: "The barge she sat in was of burnished gold…", etc.

Cleo's a hard enough part already without quite knowing who your Ant is. Even Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon didn't exactly catch fire in Adrian Noble's RSC production (though Helen nearly did; her last act headgear looked like a chip-pan), and there were unhappy mutterings over Alan Bates apparently giving Frances de la Tour a downstairs nibble in the very first scene of a generally derided (though not by me!) production also at the RSC.

Two of the very best RSC Cleos I can recall – Janet Suzman and Harriet Walter – both had really fine Antonys, Richard Johnson and Patrick Stewart (who also served time as an exceptional Enobarbus in the 1973 Trevor Nunn production with Suzman and Johnson). Antony’s a great part, immortalised in Cleo's memory of him: "His delights were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above the elements they lived in. In his livery walked crowns and coronets; realms and islands were as plates dropp'd from his pocket."

So, I wonder if there's a betting book open on the casting at the Globe? James Purefoy would be spot-on, and a good career move, but then so would Iain Glen (no news yet of why he withdrew from Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic; I do so hope he's okay), Colin Firth or indeed Jasper Britton, with whom Best used to live and whom she partnered onstage at the Globe as Lady Macbeth.

Jasper, of course, is unavailable anyway as he's signed up to play the dying KIng Henry IV in my two favourite plays at Stratford-upon-Avon this spring (with Antony Sher as Falstaff). The RSC has also just announced lead casting for The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham: Lisa Dillon in the first role of Moll Cutpurse, played so brilliantly by Helen Mirren thirty year ago; and Sharon Small in the second.

These are two exceptionally fine actresses, but I wonder if their names were in the frame, so to speak, when the plays themselves were programmed? Contractual obligations between producing companies and agents are notoriously hard to pin down these days, but it always astonishes me when a theatre announces Hamlet, or (less often) King Lear, without any indication of who's playing the title role. The whole point of Hamlet is who plays him. End of story.

But the theatre is a practical, pragmatic and slippery art. I remember Michael Grandage telling me that his Hamlet was going to be Michael Sheen. Instead, it turned out to be Jude Law. And Sheen's infinitely superior Hamlet, one of the finest and most inevitable of recent decades, was directed by Ian Rickson at the Young Vic. So there you go… the best laid plans are not always the best.