Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Gregory Doran
Sound Paul Englishby
Design Stephen Brimson-Lewis
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
24th October 2013 matinee 13.30
The crap seats are certainly cheap at the RSC, euphemistically called “restricted view” which depending on the production can be so restricted that we always go more expensive if we can, but for David Tennant as Richard II, two minutes after booking opened for our lowest membership tier, this is all we could get. Actually, one seat was very good, the other had a pillar square in front, but it was easy enough to peer around. The Circle is a nice height to be. The giddying upper circle isn’t and down in the stalls, you often find yourself staring upwards.
The RSC used to avoid imported stars, but for this production an RSC “past star” certainly sells tickets. At the end David Tennant made a charity appeal and said he would be holding a bucket himself. The sixth formers in the circle screamed when they saw him outside after the show and he was nearly mobbed. I guess the teen appeal is from Dr Who, but I’d assume the rapid sale of seats was memories of his Hamlet … which we never managed to get tickers for.
Richard II is a tempting leading role for an actor. I’m not enamored of the histories. This one has no Falstaff, no Pistol or Bardolph to lighten it either. The BBC did The Hollow Crown a year ago with the set of four plays (Richard II to Henry V), going overboard with outdoor locations, huge real ruined castles. It was incongruous to think of Richard II wading ashore in long robes with an army of just two from his excursion to Ireland with his boat hundreds of yards out to sea, but then a hovering hollow crown appearing frequently would be nothing compared to David Tennant’s recent TV experiences.
Well, for someone who isn’t keen on the histories, I was mesmerised from beginning to end by the fine cast and lucid direction. It’s almost a surprise to see period costume at the RSC. The costume and set (with much projection) were essential ingredients in the appeal. I was so pleased to see something roughly 1400, rather than Chicago gangsters, Rastafari, or the British army in the Gulf War. Sometimes it’s good to set a play about the events of 1398-1399 in the intended years. The set has metal catwalks descending from above, the whole stage tilting to reveal a dungeon.
As the programme says, the original title was the Tragedy of King Richard II, not ‘the history.’ The programme also draws the political parallels with Elizabethan England … Could a monarch be deposed? How did you organize the succession to a childless monarch? All this was in the air in Elizabeth’s declining years.
Richard II (David Tennant)
We expected Richard to be ineffectual in Henry VI style, probably gay and possibly quite mad at the end, because one or all of these underlies the normal interpretations. Tennant’s Richard was more complex, and as a result, more fascinating and more tragic. This was a man enamoured of power and the trappings of power, and a man who had a snake-like reaction to potential challenges. OK, he had the carefully-tended long hair to match portraits, carefully manicured nails, and he’d kiss favorites, and indeed enemies, on the mouth, or pop grapes and sweetmeats into their mouths, and the followers were definitely effete, posing around behind him in court scenes. But he’d kiss his Queen too, and he didn’t seem ineffectual, but rather bent on his distorted vision of his own divine right to be king, in the face of the powerful nobles. His uncles, Gloucester, in his coffin as the play opens, murdered; John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster (Michael Pennington), and The Duke of York (Oliver Ford Davies) had been the ruling council when he succeeded to the throne aged ten.
York (Oliver Ford Davies), Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Richard II.
This young king had no paternal model … he followed his grandfather, Edward III, as his father, the Black Prince, was already dead. He had had to evolve his own idea of monarchy, and to assert himself against first his powerful uncles, then his tough, pragmatic cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke of Hereford (or Her-ford, as they pronounced it). Richard is also a slimy individual, implicated in Gloucester’s murder, keen to get Henry Bolingbroke banished, then he has the excuse to confiscate the Lancaster lands when John of Gaunt dies. He needs the cash to finance an Irish war. His gleeful reaction when he hears his uncle is dying, then his visit to John of Gaunt extracts lots of humour. He’s not just ‘acted upon’ but he is up against strong wills that he cannot control.
John of Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and Richard II (David Tennant)
Tennant is marvellous to behold from start to finish, equally at home with the poetry, and sudden naturalism which gave humour … ‘Say it again?’ he says after a complex explanation by Henry. The two uncles are both charismatic, with Michael Pennington bringing off that long famous speech superbly. York is powerful throughout. Oliver Rix is the Duke of Aumerle, York’s son, Richard’s cousin, and apparently the king’s closest friend. Rix has reactive acting throughout, watching the twists and turns … we last saw him in Cardenio and had been hoping to see him again. Nigel Lindsay is a solid, strong Bolingbroke, his cropped hair contrasting with Richard’s flowing locks. He’s efficient, pragmatic. It’s the Cavaliers and Roundhead theme in British politics, but 250 years earlier. When everyone is trying to challenge everyone else near the end, his exasperated expressions, off at the side, are a joy to watch. My first thought afterwards is that I hope he continues as Henry IV next year when the RSC do both Part One and Part Two. As people will surely go to those who saw Richard II, it will give continuity.
The Duke of Aumerle (Oliver Rix) and Richard II.
I thought it far clearer than the Hollow Crown version, and Tennant’s Richard II a far more interesting interpretation. The production lifted my opinion of the intrinsic play enormously. And Tennant has that immeasurable quality: charisma.
The live music deserves special mention. There’s a CD on sale at the RSC at a reasonable £5, and I looked in the interval, intending to buy it at the end, then in the euphoria of chatting about the play, forgot. There are three women soprano singers, three trumpets, percussion and keyboard. There is a pre-show with the Duchess of Gloucester draped over her husband’s coffins while the women sing. The effect of three trumpets together is stirring, frightening, and exciting at various times, Excellent live music (the CD also has Vaughan Williams 1913 music from the play).
DAY SPECIFIC …
The added drama was that someone was taken ill in the audience at the point where Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, are being made to swear on Richard’s sword. A stage manager had the unenviable task of walking into the scene and announcing, ‘Can I stop you there, David?’ as the lead was in full voice. When they restarted, seamlessly a few minutes later, Tennant “rewound” a minute or two.
Richard II, Globe Theatre 2015 with Charles Edwards as Richard II
To Julie Raby’s BETWEEN THE ACTS blog with review of the Stratford performance, then the Barbican transfer.