Bowled over by Brilliant Branagh

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

Richard III (Sheffield Crucible)

Verdict: Branagh burns up the stage in thrilling revival _____ Doctor Faustus (Young Vic)

Verdict: Jude sells his soul in a magic spell ____.

The Duchess Of Malfi (Salisbury Playhouse)

Verdict: Grim masterpiece glows in the dark ___..

WHAT a week! The birth of British drama, the storming return to the stage of Kenneth Branagh, and a great leap forward by the young pretender, Jude Law.

Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were both born in 1564.

The first London theatre opened in 1576.

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1588) and Shakespeare's Richard III (1593) were talented early plays exploring theatrical forms and creating a popular culture that continues to this day, the envy of the world.

Both Richard and Faustus bristle with energy, life and thrilling experimentation.

And both this week's revivals convey that sense of excitement.

How to start that devilish soliloquy 'Now is the winter of our discontent . .

. ' and not ape Laurence Olivier in the famous film?

Stretched like a prisoner in white underpants on a torture machine, Kenneth Branagh's limbs look regular and chunky.

He delivers those first lines as though still asleep.

But gradually he frees himself and bends in half before straightening once more in a rigid corset, binding his left arm, clamping his right leg in callipers.

Branagh has been away from the stage for ten years, but he looks sharp, fighting fit, ready for anything.

And he shines through the play with a light, satanic gleam and a wonderfully irreverent, musical way with the words.

Naked like the Elephant Man, he is a crumpled reject. But more than any Richard I can recall, Branagh wills himself to action and into his public, cruel persona.

Michael Grandage's utterly involving production moves with the slinky speed of a rattlesnake, designed on grey flagstones with lighting by Tim Mitchell that suggests the interior of a vast cathedral.

And Branagh's nightmare is populated with trembling ghosts: Barbara Jefford's magisterial Queen Margaret, Danny Webb's laddish Buckingham and Claire Price's winning - and easily won Lady Anne.

_JUDE LAW, Branagh's successor as new golden boy of the movies, has taken on the doomed figure of Doctor Faustus, who trades his soul for a life of power and vanity. The actor is shading in the dark bits before his full bloom is realised.

Bearded and perfectly at home in doublet and hose, Law is the beating heart of a tremendous production by David Lan, though there is one great oddity: no Helen of Troy.

Admittedly she is a mirage in Marlowe's play, but when Law begs her to make him immortal with a kiss, he gazes at his own reflection in a mirror.

This might be taking self-admiration too far.

Kicking away his books, Faustus summons Lucifer and bargains for 24 years of unlicensed freedom. His guide is the devil Mephistophilis, whom Richard McCabe, in a brilliant performance, presents with chilling, understated callousness, exchanging his monkish robes for a startling red suit. THE show is arranged on a long wooden platform that bisects the audience.

The seven planets descend from the heavens, the coal fires burn beneath.

I have never seen the scale of the play so well realised, nor so well expressed in its physical conjuring of the corrupt, feasting Pope, the Emperor who wants to meet Alexander, the rushing demons, the amazed scholars. …