THEATRE / King of comedy: Paul Taylor reviews Sam Mendes's production of Richard III for the RSC

WITH HIS closely cropped head, bulbous physique and hump, Simon Russell Beale's Richard III looks like the unhappy result of a one night stand between Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein. In Sam Mendes' fine chamber production (just opened at The Other Place, then touring), we are first aware of him not as a body, however, but as an undefined threat, a sinister creaking noise as he paces about shrouded in darkness. Once illuminated, it could be argued, Beale's Richard is never quite as frightening again, though he does have one or two superb moments in which he makes danger palpable. When his young nephew, York, for example, scrambles on to his hump demanding a piggy- back, Beale allows a long tense pause of barely banked down fury before suddenly complying in a manic parody of high jinks. Terror and eroticism are not the strongest features of his performance, though. What make it memorable and compelling are the outrageous humour and the vividness with which he portrays the king's crack-up when his fortunes turn.

Flashing looks of saucer-eyed complicity at the audience, Beale gives us a camped-up, hilariously two-faced Machiavel. Inspired by a line in the first soliloquy, Mendes has a running gag whereby we often hear dogs yapping at Richard before he enters a gathering. Having fought his way past this canine reception committee, Beale then bustles in with his lop- sided limp, his features ready to become a grotesque mask of whatever spurious emotion will serve his turn. And he thinks like lightning. In the first wooing scene, for example, Lady Anne (Annabel Apsion) calls his bluff to the extent of actually nicking his proffered breast with his sword. For a split second, Richard is disoriented by the drawn blood, but then his cold, appraising eyes flick back to Anne, keenly monitoring how this upset may work to his advantage. Whether plastering his pate with the Bishop of Ely's strawberries in a naked pretence that he's been attacked, or winning the W C Fields memorial medal for child minding in the scene with the nephews, Beale shows tremendous comic energy and flair.

The rich extravagance of the performance is contained in a production of great economy and clarity. The almost ritual manner in which all of Margaret's prophetic curses are fulfilled is brought out by the simple but powerful way Mendes has her stand aloft each time in one of the doors of the back-screen and reintone the curse over the last speeches of Richard's various victims. The deaths of these people are eerily stylised too: a frock- coated figure comes on and, to a rasping, distorted cymbal sound, simply closes their living eyes, as one would those of a corpse.

Even during Richard's ascent, the production gives a very strong sense of the countervailing motion that will bring him down, and once he is king, Mendes wastes no time in registering how the rot has set in. Thrillingly, at the start of the second half, Richard enters through the audience in an ermine cloak and crown to a percussive accompaniment that made this reviewer leap in terror. Just before he reaches the throne, however, he slips and falls and there's an electrifying moment of enraged panic as he angrily rejects any helping hand but that of Steven Boxer's Buckingham.

The simplicity of the production works especially well in the final scenes, where instead of camps and tents, Richard and Richmond (Mark Lewis Jones) just sit at the opposite ends of a long table, the space between briefly filled up by the ghosts of Richard's victims in luridly lit dinner party mood. In keeping with the emphasis on the curse, this Richard is shown to be on the point of winning the final hand- to-hand combat, until Margaret wanders in, mesmerises him and seals his doom.

At The Other Place (0789 29623)

(Photograph omitted)

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