Edinburgh Festival `98: The Bard goes back to school

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THE ENGLISH Shakespeare Company was founded by Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington in 1986 with the stated aim of bringing Shakespeare to people who didn't think they wanted it (the word "accessible" crops up a lot). Malachi Bogdanov's latest production - a toddlers' Richard III - is premiering at the Edinburgh Festival before an 18-week tour. Richard III has survived experiments before (British Fascism and London's gangland were rewarding parallels), but do audiences really demand novelty at any price?

The fickle friendships and amoral cruelty of the playground are superficially similar to the short-lived loyalties and alliances of the court (the child-like trust of Clarence and the name-calling between Richard and Queen Margaret work well). But though this may make a fair point in an essay it is hardly a basis for an entire production, and the emphasis on the primal impulses (greed, fear, insecurity) robs the characters (and actors) of their full emotional range.

Richard III is seldom played in its entirety but here the text has been boldly, if not brutally pruned. Even Clarence's big dream of watery death has gone, as has Tyrrel's soliloquy on murdering the two princes.

The cuts and the use of cuddly toys as supplementary characters means the cast has been kept down to a hard-working five who interact with various bears and dollies in a kind of Shakespearian Sooty Show. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what we see when the princes (two small bears) are conveyed to London with "some little train".

The cast manage the fusion of kindergarten and courtly intrigue with aplomb. They are led by Paul Hunter's superb Richard, who capers like a spoilt child left home alone. His innocent-seeming menace and fluent verse-speaking make him an excellent choice, but he deserves more than a bouncy castle to play in.

At The Pleasance (0131-556 6550) until 23 August

Louise Levene