THEATRE / Now is an electrifying Richard III

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The Independent Culture
RISING with due contempt above the fickle sponsorship of British Telecom, Sam Mendes's production of Richard III has embarked on its boomerang tour with an electrifying performance from Simon Russell Beale. For other Richards, humps and limps are matters for the dressing room. But Beale never has presented himself as shaped for sportive tricks; and here he supremely shows physical self-hatred rebounding into social revenge.

Shrouded in ankle-length cloaks hiding who knows what deformities, small flat head rocking with reptilian cunning on a roll of neck fat, he outdoes even Queen Margaret's catalogue of bestial comparisons. His entrance is a brilliant surprise: a walking stick tapping in darkness, then a motionless figure in the light of a rehearsal lamp, delivering the opening speech in a cool, legalistic tone. It is only at the word 'lute' that hatred enters the voice, and he slides into character.

Mendes articulates the plot with uncluttered vigour, while pushing it to the extremes of horror and farce, and erecting some telling dramatic signposts along the way. Margaret (Cherry Morris), having delivered her curse, returns whenever it finds a new victim. The throne exerts a magnetic attraction - even Clarence's killer sits in it, giggling, en route to the Tower. Rhetoric is purged, with particular benefit to the grieving women. But apart from Stephen Boxer's foxy Buckingham, and Simon Dormandy's bureaucratically sinister Ratcliffe, the supporting performances are no more than functional.

In view of Beale's contribution, the banality may be deliberate. What he offers is an outsider's lurid fantasy of triumphing over the inaccessible mediocrities of normal life. The sight of children drives him to nausea: when he whirls the little Duke of York into a piggyback ride, it is far more chilling than the usual response to the 'shoulder' taboo. In his rise to power, he is repeatedly amazed that he can take these people in; once crowned (after collapsing in a satanic heap during the coronation), his contempt is such that he announces his plans for the Princes direct to the Queen before amiably informing her of her own impending demise. By turns volcanically enraged, mock-innocent, feline and winsomely flirtatious, he preserves under all this the quiet, rational voice on which he began: the voice of an observer, watching himself doing these things and wondering whether they really exist.

A question that is less apt in Shakespeare than in Bruno Schulz. In one of the stories in The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz's father, a draper, is preparing for the autumn sales. He is no ordinary draper. He is a shopkeeper only in the sense that he wants to keep everything in his shop. To him, the bales of cloth are a precious harvest of colour, to be protected from the customers; and when the plundering hordes besiege his door, he blows the alert on a shofar, causing 'waterfalls of fabric' to descend and change into the valleys and mountains of an Old Testament landscape, with old Mr Schulz as a prophet repelling the worshippers of Baal.

I do not hope to convey the full quality of Bruno Schulz (1892- 1942) with that summary, but only to suggest his treacherous appeal to the theatrical adapter. He spent most of his life as an art teacher in the Polish town of Drohobycz, a forgotten corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which forms the source of his two surviving books. Schulz's placid mother, his manically obsessive father, and Adela - the family's sexily domineering maid - are the principal figures in his stories, which inhabit a double world of stupefying provincial boredom and primeval magic.

In particular, the magic of transformation. Father can turn into a prophet; a neglected attic into a forest glade; a street into a railway station. Everything is seen through the imagination of a solitary child, but without the whimsicality of adult recollection; as, from Schulz's viewpoint, reality is 'as thin as paper', transient as a stage performance. Irresistible material, it seems, for the theatre; but where are the dialogue and workable plot lines?

In his Theatre de Complicite adaptation, Simon McBurney treats the stories themselves as if they were paper masks, and seeks to get behind them by rearranging key episodes as an act of entranced remembrance before the author's death. As Schulz was casually shot on the street by a Gestapo officer, the show falsifies his work by darkening it with a sense of oncoming fate. He was not a tragic writer, in either his treatment of death or his use of transformation. For Kafka, turning into a cockroach was a hideous nightmare, but for Schulz it was simply a 'migration of forms'. In its ominous perspective, the show suppresses his comedy.

It also obliterates Schulz the story-teller. In Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, he tells of visiting his father in a country where the dead live on in time past. He makes the journey in a slow, deserted train: which, in the Complicite version, becomes a brisk pantomime routine that does nothing to lead you into the time warp. It is just a bunch of actors doing their train number.

What does hold the production together is McBurney's use of recurring images and scenes: most obviously the sight of a classroom of adults (shades of Kantor's The Dead Class), engaged in a woodwork lesson, which leads to father's appearance as a booted wooden doll, chopped up by Adela to light the stove. Transformation is this company's speciality; and they excel themselves in the complex, musically disciplined routines of this show as the hero (Cesar Sarachu) opens the book of memory, and his ghosts emerge from rain barrels, rolling slowly over the bare floorboards and walking vertically down the back wall. In Matthew Scurfield's benevolently fanatical Father, and the performances of Annabel Arden and Lilo Baur, the family spring into vigorously individual life. Look out, then, for scenes like that of the dinner guests, molested by bird droppings, who metamorphose into a whirring flock, taking wing on their umbrellas as they escape through the attic window. At such moments, Schulz's fantasy becomes charged with flesh and blood.

'The quality of a dog,' Schulz said, 'is an inner quality and can be manifested as well in human as in animal shape.' In April de Angelis's Hush it is manifested by Andy Serkis as a homeless beach boy who turns into a dog, while slipping from sexual dependence to suicidal despair. We are not supposed to like or dislike him. That is who he is; and the same goes for the other characters - 15-year old Rosa, and the assorted adults who have moved in since her mother drowned. Very nice people they all seem until Dogboy turns up naked one night; and the choice of taking responsibility for this lost creature or turning him out cracks them wide open.

The force of Max Stafford- Clark's production lies in its impartial treatment of a morally polarised issue. The show holds up a mirror to the spectator's prejudices, and shatters the reflection. Marion Bailey, as the girl's magazine-editing aunt, seems the soul of sympathetic common sense; likewise Stephen Dillane as her novelist boyfriend: but when inconvenient demands are put on them, they start twisting the truth and going to pieces. After this well-plotted moral thriller, it appears that the obsequies for the State-of-England Play have been premature.

'Richard III', The Other Place, Stratford (0789-295623); Street of Crocodiles', Cottesloe (071-928 2252); 'Hush', Royal Court (071- 730 1745).

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