Set play

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Richard II

As You Like It

The Pit.

The Rivals

Barbican Theatre, London.

Royal Shakespeare Company in rep 1st line = The Pit, the smaller Barbican Theatre, has been transformed into a white box. Two productions from the Stratford season have now found a home in this austere environment: As You Like It opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Richard II, the first play in the RSC's cycle of Shakespeare's histories, This England, at the Other Place.

Sam West as Richard begins the play, on an acting area bathed in cold bluish light, with the speech from Act V, when Richard is in prison: "I have been studying how I may compareThis prison where I live unto the world". There is a nightmarish, other-worldly quality about this. Later, his queen speaks the same words, an expression of the onerous duty put upon the medieval ruler, and they finally resonate again in their proper place as Richard faces his last hours.

West's fine, mercurial Richard, self-absorbed but noble too, plays with David Troughton's rougher-cut, pragmatic Bolingbroke, teasing him in the Deposition scene. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The costumes in Steven Pimlott's imaginative production are sometimes distractingly eclectic, but this is an exciting first salvo in the RSC's historical armoury.

Kffe Fassett's desirable knitwear designs for As You Like It, which are featured in the Forest of Arden scenes, were widely discussed in the reviews of the Stratford opening. The costumes are indeed eye-catching, moving from the black and white of court formality to the more relaxed shapes and warm greens and russets of the forest. But the stark whiteness of the minimalist set does not allow for a similar contrast in surroundings. This is a sharp-edged Arcadia.

Alexandra Gilbreath's Rosalind is soft-centred, however, never really boyish in manner. Under Greg Doran's direction, she seems to be responding delightfully to situations as they arise, improvising quick-wittedly. She seems rather too good for Anthony Howell's chisel-jawed, but less breezily intelligent Orlando.This is, nevertheless, an enjoyable version of a popular play, with a Touchstone (Adrian Schiller) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Stan Laurel.

Sheridan's The Rivals, in the main theatre, is delightful to look at, with Bath reduced to doll's house proportions and candy-coloured costumes for Miss Lydia Languish (Emily Raymond) and her cousin Julia (Jacqueline Defferary). Wendy Craig plays Mrs Malaprop with a degree of humanity, preventing the comedy from becoming too knockabout.

Heather Neill Tickets: 020 7638 8891

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