Born to rule - you know the type

<i>Richard III</i> | Barbican Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

Samuel West's Richard II is a type that still exists and is still influential - indeed, someone not very far removed from it is editing The Spectator. This is a Richard who has gone to Eton, and regards that as sufficient preparation and justification for ruling the universe.

Samuel West's Richard II is a type that still exists and is still influential - indeed, someone not very far removed from it is editing The Spectator. This is a Richard who has gone to Eton, and regards that as sufficient preparation and justification for ruling the universe.

Educated but shallow, with more manners than decency or sense, this silly boy becomes a man not when he becomes a king but when he is about to die. So hot-headed that he twice has to be held back from striking the dying John of Gaunt, so gleeful when he seizes, like a schoolboy prankster, Gaunt's money, plate and land, West's Richard nevertheless tilts his chin up in a manner that suggests not only arrogance but the nervousness of a fighter who knows it's made of glass.

David Troughton's usurping Bolingbroke, who far outweighs his opponent, acts like a man with an iron fist in an iron glove. Yet despite his brutality, he is well aware that the events he has set in motion are overtaking him - a recognition highlighted by director Steven Pimlott's having him repeat Richard's lines about "this prison where I live" to end the play. Both actors speak with clarity and force without slighting the music of the verse, as does Paul Greenwood's quietly intense, harshly whispering Mowbray.

Praise to David Killick's suave, deadly York and Alfred Burke's eerie Gaunt, whose delivery of the "scept'red isle" speech blasts away the glutinous encrustations it has acquired after years of appropriation by the pompous.

Pimlott's production is well paced and cohesive, the high level of the acting let down only by the weak and clueless Queen of Catherine Walker (who wears too much lipstick). But it does not look as good as it sounds. The aggressive modishness of David Fielding's white-box "environment", along with that of Sue Wilmington's costumes (the Queen is dressed like a perfume ad, York like a Knightsbridge doorman) reminds us that this style is now démodé. I could have also done without the grave-mound on which the characters take turns prostrating themselves, a rather heavy nod to Beckett. Performances of such passion would be better served by completely bare boards than by this slick and shiny frame.

To 17 April (020-7638 8891)

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