The Critics: Theatre: A laugh in the face of discontent

Richard III Stratford RST Volunteers Gate, W11
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We know from his very first speech that Richard III is determined to prove a villain. What we may not have realised, before seeing Robert Lindsay play the role, is that he's determined to prove a comic, too.

In Elijah Moshinsky's exciting main-stage production at Stratford, Lindsay has all sorts of tricks up his flowing velvet sleeve. His eyes roll and his cheeks wobble. When someone else is speaking, he grunts, nods and mutters "yeah- yeah-yeah", in a most un-Shakespearean way. It's more like Mel Smith listening to Griff Rhys Jones. A grin one moment, a pout the next, Lindsay stares at individual members of the audience with an accusing eye, as if he's caught a couple of schoolboys passing cigarettes around. He uses his stave as a weapon and, sticking it under his long cloak, swirls round as if on a hobby horse. We were expecting the hump, the hobble and the withered hand; we weren't expecting him to haul us out of the stalls for some routine on stage humiliation. He looks like he might.

In Al Pacino' s film about this play, Looking For Richard, Pacino sits in a car that's driving round New York, relaying the plot to a fellow passenger, when he realises that even he's getting confused. You can see why. Half the characters sound like places: Dorset has fled to Richmond; Ely has joined forces with Derby; and Richmond is on the seas. An immediate virtue in Moshinsky's production is that you, me and Al Pacino would all know where we were: characters are forcibly established and the words, magically, are audible.

Rob Howell's excellent designs securely locate us in a medieval world conjured out of high perpendicular arches that become massive doorways. A tremendous cascade of chains descends from above the stage, creating a see-through wall, which picks up and refracts Peter Mumford's lighting as it shifts from silver to gold to white. When we reach the battle of Bosworth, the soldiers attack these chains. Moshinsky's presentational production finds a style of solid stage images and emblems that suits soliloquy, court, chorus and battlefield.

Lindsay's Richard seems dangerously at odds to the prevailing seriousness. His reading of lines is inventive and contrary. He encourages Anne (Rachel Powers) not to hesitate to kill him while holding up his hand to stop her. He breaks sentences into two to get a new meaning. He hangs on to Anne after he has wooed her, holding her in his arms, while she kisses him all over his face, and delivers the news to us that, "I'll have her, but I will not keep her long." With this unsettling, energetic larkiness you wonder how Moshinksy's production is going to find its depth.

It finds it first with others. While the wooing of Anne, in this truncated version, is so abrupt it seems barely plausible, the later wooing of Queen Elizabeth for her daughter's hand is powerfully focussed. Sian Thomas's excellent Elizabeth provides the emotional pivot as she considers ("shall I forget myself to be myself?") whether she will allow her daughter to marry the man who murdered her sons. Among the courtiers, David Yelland's brisk, crisp Buckingham is "deep revolving and witty" and Robert East as Hastings, David Killick as Stanley and Dickon Tyrrell as his namesake, Tyrell, provide strong, sharp, articulate support.

Lindsay doesn't get serious until the eve of Bosworth, when outside his tent he asks for a bowl of wine. As Richard's mind falls apart, it's a mark of the success of Moshinsky's and Howell's robust approach, that the production itself comes together so strikingly.

The procession of ghosts that visit Richard on the eve of Bosworth wait, in this production, until the following day. During the battle they emerge to haunt Richard with a chorus of "despair and die!". By now Howell's set resembles a bombed city. As Jo Stone- Fewings's Richmond and Lindsay's Richard slug it out with their swords, the ghosts walk in and out of the flashing blades. The two princes jump on Richard's back. The forces of the dead defeat him. Richard is his own enemy. It's a superb piece of abstract staging that loses none of its narrative impact. Warmly recommended.

At Volunteers at the Gate Theatre, I was seated in a single row along one side of the long walls that looked down on the soil of a small archaeological dig. The guy sitting next to me was at drama school doing design. Discovering I was a critic, he hoped I took note of the effort that went into productions. Sometimes it's hard not to.

Brian Friel's Volunteers premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1975 where the reaction to its perceived political implications overwhelmed the responses to its artistic merits. Twenty-three years on, it receives its British premiere at the Gate as part of their ambitious "A Home for the Exiles" programme (coming next, Aeschylus's The Suppliants). This time, any response to the piece was overwhelmed by the extreme nature of one of the performances.

Volunteers starts off quietly, with the supervisor of the site in his office. It might be a "work play" where kettles are boiled, tea is made, and steam rises from the mugs. When Patrick O'Kane arrives as the main character, Keeney, all this changes. O'Kane was good in Ben Elton's Popcorn as one of the two mall murderers who storm the home of the Oscar- winning director of violent movies. Here, in a tiny venue, he keeps up the same level of attack.

It's an exhausting performance to watch. Beads of sweat run off his dimpled chin at a rate of one every three seconds. I kept missing the sense of the words passing through his mind. There was more effort than insight. Director Mick Gordon who has planned this rewarding season should have balanced the performances. There's a stylistic gap between the careful naturalism of Liz Cooke's setting, the theatricality of Friel's writing (the characters adopt different voices and play-act) and the fireworks of O'Kane's performance. Friel's play is an absorbing one, stripping back, as you would expect with a play about an archaeological dig, the personal, political and historical layers which have formed these characters.

But it didn't work here. After the interval, the student next to me had gone. He must have seen all he needed of the design.

'Richard III': RST Stratford (01789 295623), to 14 November; then tours to Woking, Cardiff, Bradford and Bath. 'Volunteers': Gate, W11 (0171 229 0706), to 11 November.