A breath of fresh air

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on an all-female Richard III and the dog that stole the show in Two Gentle

There are few London treats more delicious than a beautiful evening, a good picnic, and Shakespeare in the open air.

At Shakespeare's Globe this summer, you can find a most unusual Richard III. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare meant Richard III to be a comedy, nor for almost every line to be delivered as if by a stand-up comedian, but it sort of works as long as it wasn't Shakespeare you wanted.

There's the small matter of an all-female company, for a start. If there has to be a group of women playing, perversely, some of Shakespeare's most macho men, we could have done a great deal worse than Kathryn Hunter's ironic and humorously amoral Richard.

Hunter starts as she means to continue, with a risky strategy of playing the murderer king against the modern convention that his deformity is in his mind. Hunter's body is so twisted that she lollops along at a sometimes horizontal angle which barely keeps her from toppling over. With not just a hump but an inverted hand and a withered arm, her body becomes her most useful prop.

The director Barry Kyle's light touch with the production, and his willingness to use the entire Globe, bring actors to every part of the pit. The mainly young audience becomes drawn into Richard's machinations, cheering his highly amusing (in this instance) claim to become king.

Richard is not the only villain here. Kyle's production brings out treachery in almost every character, emphasising Shakespeare's point that England had the monarchy it deserved, a weak and whining aristocracy, a craven and grasping Church, and an incurious and greedy populace. Among this lot, Richard fits in nicely.

There are a couple of other outstanding performances, too - among the women playing women. Linda Bassett's frighteningly powerful Queen Margaret thunders her curses at the diminutive Richard. And Meredith MacNeill is an interesting choice for Lady Anne, whom she plays as a daft woman who doesn't have a clue what she's doing when she accepts the proposal of the repulsive Richard over the body of her dead husband.

This Richard III asks whether the king is inherently evil, or just the intelligent but warped product of an unloved and unloving family.

At the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, the season proper started with the always tricky Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Yes, it contains the first of Shakespeare's heroines to dress as a man, a device much used in his all-male theatrical days and, yes, it has the funniest of all his running jokes, the servant Launce's ongoing travails with his dog, Crabbe, but really, Two Gentlemen of Verona is the least of all the comedies. Shakespeare wasn't too fussy about his plotting, which borders on the preposterous throughout. When he ran out of time at the end of a scene, or even in the middle of an act ("Exit pursued by a bear" springs to mind) he never scrupled to U-turn. The play also has the silliest of all happy endings. After seeing his best friend, Proteus, attempt to rape his girlfriend, Valentine forgives him, returns him to his original love, Julia, still dressed as a man, and the four go off happily into the night, perhaps to finish their picnic.

This play can be saved only by really fine performances or by a production that makes at least internal sense. Rachel Kavanaugh, a Park favourite, has set the play in the Regency period, presumably because it was a time of hedonism, where the pursuit of pleasure permitted swiping another bloke's girlfriend if you could get away with it.

Unfortunately, as Proteus, Valentine, Silvia and Julia, Kavanaugh's four principal players seem to have mistaken shouting for verse-speaking, and there is precious little characterisation. It is left to the servants - Victoria Woodward as an earthy and warm Lucetta, John Hodgkinson as a sardonic and knowing Speed and, above all, Ian Talbot (the artistic and managing director of the Open Air Theatre) as the best Launce I have ever seen - to pick up the gauntlet, which they all do with humour and, in the case of Talbot, consummate skill. What's the old adage? Never perform with children or animals? Talbot just about triumphed over Josie (Crabbe the dog), who neatly scooped the entire evening from the rest of the cast. Wishing earnestly for the reappearance of minor characters is a sure sign of problems with a production. When one yearns for the dog, however, clearly all is lost.

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

Two Gentlemen of Verona is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1 (020 7486 2431) until 3 September

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