Questions of identity

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on Zeffirelli's return to the West End and an all-male Richard II

Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) is one of the major European playwrights of the past century most neglected by the English-speaking theatre. The master of mystery was obsessed by questions of identity: are we who we think we are? And, if we aren't, who the hell are we?

His considerable family fortune was destroyed in a fire down their salt mines, the shock of which left his wife paralysed. She could not walk for six months, and for ever afterwards was so mentally unbalanced that Pirandello spent the rest of his life, and all of his best work, wondering whether reality was such a good idea.

The distinguished dramatist Martin Sherman has adapted Pirandello's play, originally better known as Right You Are (If You Think You Are), and given it a subtle contemporary twist as well as the new title Absolutely! (perhaps). But the best news about the current staging is that it brings to us as director and designer the great Franco Zeffirelli, back in the West End for the first time in what must be 30 years. This production also reunites Zeffirelli with Joan Plowright, with whom he worked on a film a few years ago (Tea With Mussolini), but whose stage part-nership has not been revived since the heyday of Olivier's National Theatres in the late 1960s.

The play was inspired by a story, which generated a great deal of newspaper interest in Italy during the 1930s, about an amnesiac husband who, having lost all his papers in an earthquake, was eventually reunited with the wrong wife. As our guide through this complex tale, the narrator (Pirandello himself, maybe?) is constantly on stage writing at a desk. Despite the wonderfully wizard-like Oliver Ford Davies in this role, the last laugh is with him and on us. According to Pirandello, there are no answers to the nature of self, and by insisting on searching for them we risk sacrificing the mystery of existence.

Instead of a drama, this is a series of brilliant conjuring tricks, with Zeffirelli at his operatic best - there has been no director-designer in all his 80 years to challenge his celebration of the theatrical. Here one wall of his opulent set is a vast mirror in which the audience can examine themselves and question their own identities.

In this rare stage appearance, Plowright wonderfully transforms her own homespun regionalism to suit the Italian tempo and temperature. At a time when most West End stars seem to have come to us from across the Atlantic, it is good to be reminded of our home-grown talent, even in so foreign a setting as Zeffirelli's.

The new, all-male, Tim Carroll production of Richard II is an excellent idea. The production aims to be as close as possible to its first production in 1595 (the Globe calls this "original practices"), and is performed in the Elizabethan costume of Shakespeare's time rather than the medieval dress of the play's setting, roughly 200 years earlier.

Movement, music, speech, dance and design are all shaped to the original productions. Even the curtain call, a dance beautifully choreographed (by Sian Williams) and including the entire cast, is in keeping with the additional entertainment that Shakespeare's audiences would have expected. As happens all too often, however, the Globe's good idea is defeated by its execution.

A cast led magnificently by Mark Rylance as the weak, callow and ultimately defeated king is otherwise woefully underpowered, and the playing is dogged rather than committed. It is hard to differentiate Aumerle from the myriad other noblemen who routinely change sides between Richard and Henry Bolingbroke throughout the play. Having his (adoptive?) parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, plead successfully for him at the end is odd, to put it mildly.

As the anti-hero, Rylance communicates Richard's delight at his power, and his outrage at the notion that the divinity of kings is less than immutable. Nothing becomes him like the manner of his going, however, and his abdication scene is a masterpiece of subtlety. One of his most felicitous notions is to dress himself in all the paraphernalia of royalty, a gorgeous golden concoction of an outfit, while he learns that he will henceforth no longer be king. As his courtiers recount the disasters visited on him by the exiled Bolingbroke, he strides around, preening, glancing frequently at himself, as though the possession of such glorious raiment in itself proves him to be king. Despite the shallowness of a bad and careless man and the misdeeds of a useless ruler, he has been anointed by God. Without fuss, this is a bravura performance. Would that the others were in the same league.

Absolutely! (perhaps) is booking at the Wyndhams Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1736) to 23 August

Richard II is at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919) until 27 September