Richard lll and The Comedy of Errors; Greenland | review

Lyceum, Sheffield; Lyttelton, London

With a jaunty chorus of "Down Among the Dead Men", spivs in bowlers close in for the kill. The executioner's blade slices to the sound of plainsong. Figures with faces covered by gauze masks slither around the stage; a butcher's PVC curtain is splashed with gobbets of blood; the heads of those dear little princes in the Tower are flourished, pickled in a jar.

In Propeller's galvanic, gruesome, tuneful Richard III, England is a hospital case, a piece of flesh continually jabbed by a leering torturer. The terrors of this are hammered home – strings of sausages serve for intestines – and yet, in a nimble feat of funambulism, kept real: this horror could be hilarious.

For the same company's The Comedy of Errors, Ephesus has been transplanted to a gaudy South America, where the beat is rapid and the action frenzied and preposterous. A brass band parps and poops as characters slug it out; a mountebank preacher (the sweatily messianic Tony Bell), backed by a gospel choir, strips to his string vest; drag queens skid around in leopardskin and platforms, bandeaux and bunny costumes. One confusion follows fast upon another: painted from a different palette, this hilarity could be a horror story.

It sounds like the least probable of partnerships: Shakespeare's shortest, most farcical drama performed alongside one of his longest and most blood-boltered historical tragedies. Yet, dynamically yoked and forcefully performed by Edward Hall's all-male company, these two early plays turn out to complement each other, both in the extremity of their moods and in their preoccupations. Each has a variation on the theme of forging – in Richard's case in a double sense – an identity.

Though fast and frisky, The Comedy of Errors has a tremulous uncertainty at its centre: no one knows who she or he is and no one knows who anyone else is. Hall expertly enhances the perkily mechanical aspects of this: the two sets of identical twins first pop up high above the stage as if they were weathermen in a Swiss clock; a fight is frozen halfway through in a mess of limbs which turns the wranglers into a many-legged monster. The all-male ensemble contributes further panto-style confusion with its prancing, wobbly bosomed, cardy-clutching, scintillating crew of dames.

Yet the comedy also contains some of the most beautiful and subtly unsettling lines that Shakespeare wrote. One twin, seeking his other half, explains how in finding where he belongs he will disappear: "I to the world am like a drop of water/ That in the ocean seeks another drop." For all the extravagant frolics that surround it, the lyricism of that speech, in which desire melts into despair, isn't lost here: it sings out.

As does every major speech in both plays. In Richard III, the iron will with which Richard sets about stamping himself on his surroundings is sinuously conveyed by the powerful Richard Clothier. He makes the crooked king silky as well as snarling: his insidious, elaborately rational manner helps to make sense of the way women topple like ninepins in front of Richard's blandishments. He is a seducer, both lounge lizard and thug, with none of Olivier's crab-like gait and thin-lipped spite. Tall and silver-haired, he stoops over the action as if the hump on his back was helping him to dominate, obliging him to look down on everyone; you believe for a moment that you can feel and hear the crunch of bones as he crushes a wife to death.

Which is also a tribute to the fineness of Jon Trenchard's embodiment of Lady Anne. Actually, all the "women" in Richard III are played with extraordinary delicacy and precision. It is one of the many triumphs of this glorious double-bill that it shows the possibilities of cross-gender casting and provides a ticklist for the portrayal of women on the stage: harridan, whore, hopeful sex-object, murdered wife, vengeful matron.

At the Lyttelton, Greenland is not so much a play as a statement put out by a committee. Written by four dramatists – Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne – it has the savour of no particular voice. Aiming to draw attention to the threats posed by climate change, it does so to an audience primed to agree with its anxieties. As in the National's earlier attempt to dramatise the subject – Mike Bartlett's Earthquakes in London – a sensational, far-reaching, absorbing design, in this case by Bunny Christie, outstrips the script.

Bijan Sheibani, who directs, is one of theatre's great hopes. His production shows why. It opens on a dark stage overhung by a huge fishing net filled with plastic bags. It goes on to include snow falling featherlike into the audience, sheets of rain and three startling visual moments. A boy and his future self count birds in the Arctic and see a flock of guillemots circling overhead: the audience sees them, too – wishbones of light that wing over the sides of the stage and out into the stalls.

That boy suddenly plops down off the stage, into a hole in the ice. And, just as you're praying for a polar bear to put in an appearance so that someone can exit pursued by her or him, a glacier-mint creation walks stiffly on to the stage: enormous and super-white, the beast nudges its nose against the boy's leg with the casual air of a creature who could, if it was bovvered, munch off the limb.

Nevertheless, this is a play about change in which little changes. Catastrophes are chronicled, disasters itemised, complaints – "Mum, the ice is melting and I'm really scared" – rehearsed, but the individual stories are repetitive and the dialogue, which is often locked into paradigm-tipping-point jargon – formulaic.

What a waste of extraordinary actors. In particular, Lyndsey Marshal, frank and apparently without guile, who can make an audience feel she's talking to each one of them; Amanda Lawrence, who becomes whatever she describes, so that when, as a bureaucrat, she talks about the multiple brackets used in official prose, she takes on the shape of a typographical candelabra; and Isabella Laughland, very young, very natural, very gifted, here mostly dangling above the stage in a supermarket trolley. As for the play itself: four authors in search of a character.

This article was amended on 8 February to correct a misattributed role in Richard III


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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