THEATRE / Bowed, but mostly unbloodied: Rhoda Koenig on Sam Mendes' production of Richard III for the RSC, now transferred to the Donmar Warehouse

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The Independent Culture
FACING her father-in-law's murderer over his corpse, the Lady Anne draws back a shroud to demonstrate that his wounds indeed stream a reproachful red, as they 'open their congeal'd mouths and bleed afresh'. But the gore is an anomaly in Sam Mendes' production of Richard III, which gives us a rather bloodless version of the 'bloody king'.

Mendes uses the restricted space of the Donmar Warehouse stage with brisk efficiency, its bare white boards reinforcing the emptiness and chill of Richard's court. Tim Hatley has designed a simple white back wall with several doors for sudden entrances and openings aloft for a suddenly pious Richard to appear between two bishops (his henchmen in disguise) or for old Queen Margaret to return, repeating her prophecies of doom as they come true. The fight scenes are crisply staged, and less concerted violence is handled in an appropriately messy way: after much dithering by the two murderers, the Duke of Clarence (an appealing Simon Dormandy) is several times ducked into a pail of water, finally to flop backward, drowned, on his startled assassin and knock him to the floor.

But for all that it is well diagrammed the production lacks depth, a failing most obvious in the Richard of Ciaran Hinds. Slouching into the role after Simon Russell Beale's too-energetic limping led to a slipped disc, Hinds does not seem to have had time to get past an outline sketch of a performance. His manner is detached without being especially sinister. When he reproves the Lady Anne for her lack of charity, he does so with utter rather than with atrocious reasonableness. His handsome-horse features never assume a particularly frightening cast, and the flapping overcoat and tapping cane suggest less a killer than a child molester.

Stephen Boxer's Buckingham, gleeful in his oily deceptions, is much more the type you wouldn't want between you and the door. Richard's queen, Annabelle Apsion, is an ineffectual partner to this laid-back demon. She sighs for the unwanted crown to be red-hot steel rather than gold with the fretfulness of one who thinks the former would be a better match for her coronation frock.

Perhaps due to economic necessity, the young Prince of Wales and his brother are played by young women, one of whom is nearly as tall as her Uncle Gloucester and has outgrown her school uniform in another direction. It is not immediately clear why name-cards have been placed in front of everyone at the conference where Hastings is denounced and led off to the block. We know by then who all the lords are; they certainly know who they are. Mendes' purpose becomes apparent when Hastings's head is brought back in a brown-paper parcel neatly tied with string: his name serves as a cute caption for the contents of the box.

This light-hearted touch extends to the offstage dog that heralds Richard's appearance. Far from being the fearful or threatening bark that Richard claims the street curs make in response to his deformity, the tinny yapping suggests that he has stepped on the poor creature's paw.

To 20 Feb, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (071-867 1150).