17 MAY 2003, Page 74

Facile histrionics

Lloyd Evans

Caligula Donmar Warehouse Richard II Shakespeare's Globe Thousands have been flocking to 1 Caligula at the Donmar Warehouse. I had no idea Albert Camus was so unpopular: I can think of no reason to attend this lumbering folly other than to see his reputation exploded. Michael Sheen plays the psychotic Caesar rather like Marc Bolan on a sadistic bender. Superficially he is admirable. His lush black curls are offset by a fetching white suit of breathable cotton nightwear (Marks & Spencer, £65.95) which he occasionally varies with a skyblue ankle-length fur-trimmed dressinggown (Back To The Seventies, £165). Thus berobed, he has a whale of a time being nasty to people and then killing them. But his energies are entirely wasted.

No actor could impart any purpose or depth to Camus's facile histrionics. This is a piece of apprentice work by an unimaginative playwright who hoped that if he matched a lunatic's unchecked cruelty with the might and majesty of an empire he would concoct a potent brew. He didn't. It's like watching a schoolboy juggling puppies over a watermill. There is no narrative development or subtlety of characterisation. Each of Caligula's oppressed playthings faces a stark choice, to be a coward or a corpse, a yes-man or no-man. Because the assassination is inevitable from the opening scene, any delay is tedious. I sat through a plague of humdrum rapes and workaday murders yawning and fidgeting and thinking about my interval Bud. Eventually the conspirators got their act together and the ketchup hit the pyjamas. My two hours' captivity was not helped by obvious lighting, actorly acting, stagy staging, and a 'fusion' wardrobe that combined the flounciest excesses of I, Claudius with a baffling selection of clerical cassocks. I fully understand why the producers wanted to enliven the show with butch sound effects, but I found that having a hole punched in my eardrums at the end of each scene was a sharper reveille than I needed.

At the Globe another tyrant is being deposed. Mark Rylance plays Richard II. Re-enacting Shakespeare carries the danger of over-diligence, The Globe itself is built from 'green' oak, hewn and seasoned according to the practices of Elizabethan carpentry. The limewash plaster was mixed under the noses of building historians and the roof is made from water-reed thatch that carries the DNA profile of samples unearthed on the site.

For this production, research teams have fanned out across Europe. A wardrobe full of tailors was punted across the Rhine. From there, navigating by starlight, they journeyed south to the Bayerisches Nat ionalmuseum in Munich to study the fashions of the 16th century. Their colleagues were borne in litters across the snow-bound Alps. Overcoming fatigue and harsh weather, they gained the gates of Genoa where they purchased rolls of taffeta and plain-weave velvet from the renowned Gaggioli family who have been hand-crafting these fabrics on the same machines for four centuries. Back in England, a confederacy of woodcutters pondered the problem of Richard's throne. The final design was assembled only after a scrupulous examination of the archbishop's seat of 1550 at York Minster.

And it goes on. The auditorium is hung with banners painted on sized linen by expert calligraphers modelling their designs on the Vincent manuscripts held at the Royal College of Arms. The music is played by an ensemble of cornetts, sackbuts and dulcian . and the result? The result of all this heaving, throbbing ant-like industry? The result is a triumph. Normally I shun acts of cultural piety, but this production won me over. Everyone in the cast is terrific. And Rylance is even better. He has the courage to appear quite ordinary as the camp, self-adoring monarch. His performance is not only touching and dignified but also amazingly funny. My only quibble is with the treatment of the groundlings. Welcomed in for just a fiver, they are forbidden to sit down during the three-hour performance. This cruel decree is enthusiastically enforced by gangs of grandmothers in mauve tunics who patrol the auditorium whispering, 'Get up' to footsore Aussies. Their furtive bullying mars a show which is, in all other respects, entertaining beyond my powers to praise it. All I can say is — go. And it's cold out there, even in summer, so bring a scarf or a companion with high blood pressure whom you can stroke like a hot-water bottle. If it's particularly chilly and you need to warm up during the interval, heave a few of the mauve grannies into the river.