David Tennant as Richard II for the RSC
I will start this review by saying that the new, much anticipated, Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II starring David Tennant is still in early previews and is continuing to grow and develop. Therefore this post is more a reflection of my first impressions after seeing the first two preview performances. The production marks the start of the RSC’s plan to stage each of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, which will reach an even wider audience than ever before due to the planned screenings in schools and cinemas across the world.
Richard II was first published in 1597 and is set in the final two years of the King’s twenty two year reign during 1398 – 1399. It is no secret that I think David Tennant is a fantastic actor and have been very excited about seeing this production since it was announced and, although I think the production is not yet as great as it will be, the ensemble is very good indeed and it is clear that everyone understands the play as a whole (no doubt aided by director Greg Doran’s style to have everyone read a different role during early rehearsals).
Greg Doran has created a production that I’m sure will be accessible to those with little or no knowledge of the text beforehand and it is certainly the most clear staging I have seen of the play, bringing a clarity and understanding to speeches and moments that I have not experienced before.
The set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superb in its simplicity – the use of visual projections to add depth and scale to the grandeur of the Westminster Hall backdrop creates the illusion that the RST space is even bigger than it is. Such visuals also assist with the changing scenes as does the lighting. Using a gangway to elevate the King is a great decision and makes the rise and fall of Richard all the more striking and I loved the staging of the prison scene towards the end of the play, particularly the initial moments when only the reflection of the defeated Richard can be seen by the audience. The starkness of how far he has fallen and how much he has lost could not be clearer. The costumes are superb, as is to be expected at the RSC, highlighting in particular Richard’s need to have an excess of beautiful things around him and indeed for such beauty to be a part of his image.
As for the performances, and as I said before this is only based on the first two previews, Michael Pennington is a strong John of Gaunt (and is much more suited to this role than Antony in Chichester’s production of Antony & Cleopatra) – his affection for his son is believable and his anger against Richard before his death is strongly delivered and made all the more striking by the King’s appalling attitude and behaviour during the scene, played well by David Tennant.
Oliver Ford Davies is wonderful as York (although I’d have been surprised if it had been otherwise!) – his ability to turn a Shakespearean line in a way you don’t expect and his ability to make the meaning of each word so clear is superb and he brought much needed humour to the later scenes with his wife.
Oliver Rix (last seen in the RSC’s Cardenio) is very good indeed as York’s son Aumerle and was one of the standout performances for me. He plays the character’s clear devotion to Richard superbly and the scenes between the two of them have a strong emotional impact, one which I haven’t felt as much on seeing other versions of the play. The staging of their scene together at FlintCastle when Richard realises there is no hope left and that he must submit to Bolingbroke is affectionate and deeply moving. Staged on the gangway above the audience, which for the second night had the centre railings removed (a clever decision as this removed a barrier between the two actors, who on opening night were acting between the railings, but also between the scene and the audience), it is a delicate, intimate exchange in which we see a softer Richard with whom we can start to sympathise. It is this relationship that is the most significant one for Richard, more so than that between King and Queen and it is this scene rather than his parting with his wife when you begin to feel sympathy towards him. Oliver is also understudy for David Tennant and is certainly an actor to watch over the coming years.
Nigel Lindsay is excellent as Bolingbroke – his confident stature on the stage is exactly right for the man who will go on to be King and he delivers the lines with a strong confidence throughout. He is everything Richard is not, both in appearance and actions and you see him as the leader that Richard can never be. His interplay with Tennant’s Richard during the deposition scene is strong, as he conveys many emotions with few words.
David Tennant himself does very well in what is a difficult role to play and was far stronger on the second night compared to the first, clearly growing stronger with each moment on stage. Richard is not the hero of the play and you are not meant to like him – he is an ineffectual leader who views himself as God’s representative on earth and therefore does not care about what is viewed as morally acceptable by others. He believes he has the right to rule in any way he chooses and loses his supporters through his misguided actions and by letting himself be led by the weak advisers he surrounds himself with. In early scenes they seem to hover around him, tweeting in his ear when he comes to make crucial decisions, emphasising his lack of leadership. It is therefore difficult to portray a character that is neither a hero nor a true villain and instead is someone you ultimately pity.
David is however always excellent with Shakespeare’s words, connecting with an audience in a way that opens the language up and makes it so much clearer and the flowing poetic verse of this play seems to suit him. As usual, he is also superb at adding touches of humour effectively and is able to convey a person’s thoughts with just a look, most powerfully achieved here when Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to confess his sins – the charged look that passes between Richard and Mowbray and the relief when the latter remains silent make it very clear that Richard is implicated in the murder of his uncle.
Furthermore, as an older Richard when compared with the others I have seen (Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar and Ben Whishaw in The Hollow Crown), Tennant makes the King’s poor judgment and lack of real leadership all the more apparent. Whishaw, and Redmayne in particular, could be partly forgiven for their choices as young impressionable monarchs ripe to be manipulated, but this Richard is the creator of his own destiny. He appears old enough to know better and Tennant’s portrayal enhances this to the audience, making his fall from power seem all the more pitiful. The well known speech in which he speaks of the death of kings and the hollow crown was far better the second time, as Richard’s conflicting emotions and fear felt far more real and compelling.
The deposition scene is also very powerful, as although Richard has clearly created his own fate, the strength from Tennant in this scene made me see another side to the character – at this moment he ironically seems in control for the first time in the play and the choices Tennant makes here result in the scene feeling incredibly poignant. I particularly liked how he appears to unnerve Bolingbroke, whose laugh to the court on Richard’s departure is one of someone who is trying to regain the control he had before Richard arrived. For me David Tennant is still growing in confidence and his performance is beginning to hint at the magic of his simply stunning Hamlet and no doubt by press night he will be on top form.
Overall I very much enjoyed this production and am excited at the potential it has to be truly great. I look forward to seeing how it has developed on my next theatre trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon next weekend.
Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company runs in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 16th November 2013 before its run at the Barbican in London from 9th December – 25th January 2014.