Richard II by William Shakespeare, Directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, October 10th – November 16th
David Tennant stars in outstanding new RSC production.
The latest production from the RSC in which David Tennant plays the ill-starred King Richard II is also a landmark in that it will for the first time feature a live broadcast of the play from the RSC on November 13th. It is also the first of Shakespeare’s royal history plays with Henry IV Parts I and II due for performance next year and will see every one of Shakespeare’s plays staged in the next six years as part of Artistic Director Greg Doran’s vision.
Tennant is magnificent in the leading role, but he is not alone as the rest of the cast turn in performances that ensure this production is an outstanding success. Set during a time when Kings were seen as God’s representative on Earth the play opens with a deliciously aloof Tennant breezing onstage for the funeral of the Duke of Gloucester in whose death he will become implicated. From the outset, Tennant’s Richard is full of the self-assuredness of absolute power that he believes is his divine right but which, when wielded unjustly, merely paves the way to his own downfall.
The central theme of the play is the often toxic mixture of power, human failings and ambition. The ambition emerges as if by stealth in the shape of Henry Bolingbroke, a role which Nigel Lindsay inhabits with an impressive subtlety but growing menace. Michael Pennington delivers a stunning performance as Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt, and it is he who delivers the first forceful rebuke to Richard whose contemptuous response captures the essence of Tennant’s portrayal in the early acts of the play.
The events unfold on a minimalist stage and the actors are in traditional costume but the changes in atmosphere are produced by a brilliant combination of trumpets, percussion, haunting soprano voices alongside a changing backdrop projection. Despite his regal and at times outlandish robes, and his outward self-belief, Tennant’s Richard is never able to command absolute respect from his subjects. Bolingbroke and Mowbray quibble with him regarding their banishment terms, John of Gaunt angrily accuses him of betraying England and the Earl of Northumberland is rarely less than disdainful. Even the Duke of York, played superbly by Oliver Ford Davies, who spends much of the play wrestling with his conscience about the deposition of Richard, eventually abandons him.
Tennant toys with the crown at times during the performance, almost to signify the disregard that Richard has for the office of King. That is until it becomes clear that he is about to lose it when news is brought of Bolingbroke’s inexorable revolt. Suddenly we see a Richard desperate to maintain his grip on power but also strangely accepting of his fate. He teases Bolingbroke with the crown, warning him of the perils of power and emphasising that no one who accepts the office can ever be secure. As such, we are reminded that power is something that many still seek but which is equally capable of destroying them. As ever, the themes of Shakespeare’s plays remain timeless and the events portrayed are often still played out in our world and here the issue of bad rulers being removed from office is closely scrutinised with the answers being far from conclusive.
Lindsay presents Bolingbroke as the reasonable, almost reluctant alternative to Richard throughout but the viewer is often left feeling he is struggling to maintain the façade, a fact the doomed king seems to revel in as Tennant and Lindsay spark off each other to brilliant effect. So if Richard is truly so bad and worthy of deposition, why do our sympathies lie with him as the play draws to a conclusion? Is it the flowing robes and mane of hair that certainly lends a Christ-like image to Richard? More likely it is due to the genius of Tennant who, having drawn us into the mind-set of absolute rule in the early acts of the play, now reveals the human frailties of Richard as he awaits his fate. “I wasted time, now time doth waste me” he laments and bids a touching farewell to his Queen played by Emma Hamilton in an impressive RSC debut.
The mood is lifted by an uproarious scene between the Duke of York and his wife, brilliantly portrayed by Marty Cruickshank, as they squabble on bended knees before the new King Henry IV as to whether their son should be pardoned that drew spontaneous applause from an audience who had remained spellbound throughout. However, death of Richard is inevitable and only made more ironic by the murder being committed by his closest confidante Aumerle.
The final scene appropriately features the celestial voices of the 3 sopranos who have contributed so much to the building tension as the spectral, almost Christ-like figure of Richard appears above a suddenly tense figure of the new Henry IV. Maybe a re-emphasis of the divine right of the King or possibly as a warning to the new King of the troubles he will face. Either way, it is a superb climax to an outstanding production that thoroughly deserves the standing ovation that follows.
Richard II runs in Stratford until November 16th and will be performed at The Barbican Theatre, London from December 9th 2013 to January 25th 2014. It will also be broadcast live from the RSC on November 13th at cinemas across the country. It really is worth taking the time to be part of this historic moment, please see the trailer below for more details.
Photograph by Kwame Lestrade and courtesy of RSC.