The woman who would be king

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The Independent Culture
DURING THE abdication scene of Richard II, the outgoing monarch calls for a mirror to see how his features have withstood their loss of the crown. As it appears in Deborah Warner's National Theatre production, with victor and vanquished gazing into each other's eyes, this royal caprice seems superfluous. Bolingbroke himself is Richard's mirror.

It is partly a question of physical casting, given the uncanny resemblance between the close-cropped Fiona Shaw and David Threlfall as the two adversaries. There have been other productions that exploit their duality; Warner's is the first I have seen that asserts it from the start, showing them magnetically circling each other like a platonically divided creature seeking to unite its two halves. The theatrical fascination of this process is that it operates simultaneously as a love journey and a power struggle; with the resultant ambiguity that Richard's loss of political power raises him into affective superiority - so that the last time we see the emotionally tongue-tied Bolingbroke, he is wracked with tears of remorse for the man who stole his land.

In another sense, the mirror remains an essential prop. Shaw, clad throughout in a loose white costume that would look at home in a karate class, cuts an androgynous figure; but much of her performance conforms to the womanish stereo- type: irrationally obstinate, unable to make up her mind, forever retreating from public issues into personal relationships. She starts, indeed, as child: flashing nervous grins round her overbearing old uncles, awkwardly shifting her weight from one leg to the other when she has a decision to make, then looking for approval and shooting off in a tantrum when she fails to get it. As an unconfident novice, blundering from one mistake to the next, she produces some astonishing new line-readings. "What must the king do now?" changes from a lyric outpouring into the shriek of a victim tortured beyond endurance; conversely when she disbands what is left of her army, it is a quiet, matter-of-fact acknowledgement of defeat without the expected plunge into attention-grabbing self-pity. As a story of individual growth, this is a rich and engrossing performance. What is lacks is the political element; and the central distinction between the king and the man.

Played on a walled traverse stage (by Hildegard Bechtler) suggesting a palatial tennis court, the production presents a sequence of evenly matched contests, whether thunderously orchestrated public events, or personal duels where the two adversaries confront each other across the full length of the stage. The space has been organised to achieve maximum tension: a purpose somewhat sabotaged by the casting of Michael Bryant as a down-to-earth York, whose leisurely performance as a confused old man at his wit's end makes everyone else look artificial. It is an old story. Bryant in a small part walks away with the show.

At the Riverside, Vanessa Redgrave makes her directorial debut, and her third return as Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Her two earlier performances (1973 and 1986) were highly critical studies of privileged vanity and erotic madness. This time the queen becomes a victim, and Antony and Cleopatra the tragedy of an occupied land. Redgrave has also designed the show; and from the debris littering the acting area, it seems that Rome has already ground Egypt into dust.

It follows that the play ceases to be a love story, and that Cleopatra exerts her spell over Antony only to protect her country from further devastation. Accordingly there is never a flicker of passion between Redgrave and Paul Butler's portly old Antony. Dancing on among the ruins in a white ballgown, she delivers a cold-bloodedly coquettish routine to hold him captive. Alone with her women, she instantly becomes emotionally direct, and her true feelings emerge - particularly towards the eunuch, Mardian.

Beyond that, a fog descends on the show. Multi-cultural casting, including a French-language Charmian, does the verse no favours. The pace is sluggish. The staging is a shambles. There is no distinction between Rome and Egypt. Battles consist of perfunctory cross-overs with do-it-yourself war-cries. Pompey's galley is represented by a balcony riding over watery lighting; then Menas summons Pompey for a conference in the water. A beggar, picturesquely decorating the Egyptian jetty, proves to have private means when he turns up looking for handouts in Misenum. Then, at the last minute, Redgrave raises the event into magnificence: discarding her court costume along with her political calculations, and enfolding her doomed companions in a monologue of inimitable tenderness, every word an ecstatic caress. When she finally greets the Romans, it is as a lacquered death-mask through a golden veil. An imperishable image.

Meanwhile, Riverside's Studio Three celebrates another national heroine in Maureen Lawrence's Real Writing: a duologue based on the still-living Lydia Chukovskaya's 1930s memoir of Anna Akhmatova. Chukovskaya, a children's book editor, became Akhmatova's amanuensis, memorising poems that were too dangerous to preserve on paper; both women had lost menfolk to the Gulag. What Corin Redgrave's production enacts is the growth of a stormily indestructible relationship, as they join in endless queues outside the prison walls, and then return to the poet's Leningrad flat for another session of fiercely professional work. Any suspicion of over-reverence from Kate Buffery's Lydia is instantly doused by Kika Markham's brusquely unpredictable Akhmatova - bawling abuse at her neighbours while serenely acknowledging Dante as her brother, or transfiguring the commonplace horrors of the times by saying she cannot bear to go shopping as the shelves are full of skulls.

As the first Lady Bracknell to reclaim her best-known line from the spectral clutch of Edith Evans, Barbara Leigh-Hunt carves herself a niche in theatre history, in Terry Hands' production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Jack tells her he was found in a handbag, and you wait for her stunned response: outraged gurgle or petrified squeak? You wait in vain. Instead, you see her speechlessly mouthing the word "handbag" like a stranded fish. The delighted shout that greeted this moment was a tribute not only to one inspired bit of business, but to a beautifully organised comic pattern. Bracknell first comes on all smiles, so confident of her power that she has no need to show it - until Jack's revelation, which completely demolishes her defences. For her, that handbag contains the worst excesses of the French Revolution and acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. For a moment she is shattered: then she pulls herself together again with a real need to assert authority, and builds towards her exit as an authentic dragon breathing red fire.

Leigh-Hunt is the star turn in a crack company, polarised between Philip Franks's butterfly Algie and Roger Allam's doggedly earth-bound Jack. Mark Bailey's set consists of a pair of rotunda, permitting the action to develop in circles which reflect the symmetries of the action: bringing the two girls together stage centre at the moment they turn from enemies to allies, and sending Merriman (Martin Wimbush) on a palsied orbit of the arbour, returning bang on cue for each change in the dog-cart schedule. Precision, as always, releases Hands's mastery as a animator of comedy. The production arrives at the Old Vic on 7 July.

'Richard II': Cottesloe, SE1, 0171 928 2252. 'Antony and Cleopatra': Riverside Studios, W6, 0181 741 2255, to Sat; 'Real Writing': Riverside, to 17 Jun. 'The Importance of Being Earnest': Birmingham Rep, 0121 236 4455, to 24 Jun.