THEATRE / To play the king, Bucharest-style: Richard III - Gardner Arts, Brighton; Henry V - RSC, Stratford; Falling - Greenwich; Darwin's Flood - Bush

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The Independent Culture
THE ODEON Theatre of Bucharest has a nerve, I thought, on finding a plot synopsis in the programme for its touring production of Richard III. What British spectator needs to have Shakespeare explained by a crowd of Romanians? Well, I did, for one, when the show failed to deliver the expected opening sight of a misshapen protagonist hobbling down-stage to confide his secrets to the house. Instead we saw the unblemished Marcel Iures - an actor with the vulpine beauty of Gerard Depardieu - using the opening soliloquy to rouse a sleeping group of samurai warriors, while a howling wolf crouches at his feet. Evidently Mihai Maniutiu's Romanian-language production had a new story to tell.

Shakespeare's Richard is politically irresistible. Maniutiu goes beyond this by making him personally and physically irresistible too. Accompanied everywhere by the wolf, he emerges as a regal Dorian Gray, retaining undiminished charm to the end, and dying in the embrace of the wolf (Marius Stanescu), now unmasked as a stone-faced Medusa-like tempter. There is no set. Design is restricted to the darkly glinting costumes, a few hand-props, and the recurring image of fire. Maniutiu needs an empty space for the choreography of flashing sword dances and simultaneous action; and for the transformation of the warrior chorus into forbidding walls and the very stones of London.

The text, likewise, has been cut and re-ordered to bring the fable into undistracted focus. This means omitting the two Princes and Richmond, and introducing old Queen Margaret before the other court ladies so as to demonstrate Richard's seductive spell over his most inveterate enemy. The Tower conference begins with Richard handing round sweetmeats instead of sending out for strawberries; then instantly turning on the complacent Hastings and shocking him into his fatal equivocation by raising an arm bathed in fire. The Shakespearian rhythms are compressed, and no matter how well you know the play, such moments make your hair stand on end.

But Maniutiu shows his power not so much in isolated moments as in extraordinary chains of linked imagery. Rivers and Grey appear, hooded for execution; Catesby delivers one of the hoods to their enemy Hastings, who tries it on and panics when he cannot get it off. Cut to the scene with the Lord Mayor, where the warriors stage a mock uprising to alarm the citizens into electing a law-and-order monarch - and what clinches their decision is the arrival of Hastings' hooded head. It is an elaborate passage, involving changes of locale, multiple personal and public action, rollercoaster switches between horror and burlesque - all held together by a piece of black cloth.

The paradox of Iures's performance is that while his actions are dictated by long-range ambition, he lives exclusively inside the present moment: relishing his giggling confidences with Radu Amzulescu's Buckingham for their own sake, hugging the wolf with genuine affection while Clarence is being murdered, toying like a thoughtful child with the arm of the dead Margaret. Like the rest of the company, he plays with open-hearted extrovert passion. This company has no inhibitions about being seen to act. That is one surprise. Another is that the Romanians, of all people, should have turned this archetypal study of political villainy into the portrait of a tyrant whom everybody loves.

The biggest surprise at Stratford in Matthew Warchus's production of Henry V was the sight of Tony Britton, in a bemedalled overcoat, launching into the Chorus in the long- fossilised style of British Movietone News. Was this some cunning stroke of irony, or was the RSC really offering this morally two-faced piece at its chauvinistic face value?

Neither, I'm sad to say. Straightforward patriotic spectacle fills the space from time to time - as in the heraldic up-stage tableaux of the English embarkation and the eve of Agincourt. But, like so much of the show, these scenes arise from the opportunities of the moment rather than from any coherent view of the play. Iain Glen has the lean, craggy but still boyish looks for Henry - but where is the character? Where is the reformed rake learning the art of government? Repeatedly, he goes through the same emotional cycle - from pious modesty to wrath and then to tears - with increasingly mechanical effect. Late in the story, in the courtship of Monica Dolan's Catherine, he emerges as a recogisable man, with a full octave of powers and limitations. But until then it is a three-note performance.

Neil Warmington's design, which contrasts a heroic up-stage picture frame with the down-to-earth stage floor invites a dialogue between the rhetoric and reality of war. But no such dialogue takes place; not even the march to Calais conveys any sense of hardship. There is a spirited Pistol by Clive Wood, and a marvellous Fluellen from Linal Haft, moon face perpetually beaming. Other performances are rarely more than blankly serviceable. This is a competent trudge through the play, but not what you would expect from the director who lately set the West End on fire with Much Ado About Nothing.

The title of Falling Over England refers to a parachute drop that reveals the whole intricate pattern of the landscape. If Julian Mitchell intends this as a metaphor for his play, I think he is mistaken, even though its two main characters - a gung-ho Army officer turned drunken lawyer, and his vindictively disappointed wife - are undoubtedly in free fall.

The action spans 50 years, with the Suez crisis as its centrepiece, but no microcosm of England emerges from the inveterate in-fighting of this upper-middle-class clan. As a modest family drama, though, it is very well written; and becomes better and better as the appalling parents (James Laurenson and Charlotte Cornwell) surrender the stage to their interesting children, with a long memory of domestic events and private jokes to share with the audience. On those terms, the piece is rich in moral insight and aphoristic comedy. Matthew Francis's production makes light of its unwieldy structure and (thanks to Matthew Scott's music) conveys a strong sense of the passage of time.

In Snoo Wilson's Darwin's Flood, the ghost of the great naturalist (John Kane) entertains a time-travelling crew of unwanted visitors, including the mad Nietzsche, a dominatrix Mary Magdalene, and a Belfast Jesus who arrives on his bike. Robin Don's set, which features a descending helicopter and the arrival of the Ark through the floorboards, surpasses even the Bush's past triumphs over the impossible. As for the play, it is Wilson's method to throw mighty opposites together and see what happens. Not much does this time in terms of coherent argument. But who cares, when Simon Stokes's production offers such a funfair of intellectual miscegenation, anachronistic whoopee-cushions, and stunning one-liners. As Jesus puts it, 'The trouble with you professor types is your brains have gone to your heads.'

'Richard III': Gardner Arts, Brighton, 0273 709709, from 18 May. 'Henry V': RSC, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'Falling': Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'Darwin's Flood': Bush, 081-743 3388.

(Photograph omitted)