Photo by Kwame Lestrade for the RSC
My last post about the RSC’s new production of Richard II set out my initial thoughts after the first two previews and last Saturday (19th October) saw my first trip to see the production after its press night. Initially the production, although strong and full of promise, had not wowed me and I expected the ensemble to grow in confidence in the lead up to press night. Such growth and development has certainly occurred and the production as a whole is significantly stronger now than it was which is fantastic. Everyone has grown in their roles and pivotal moments have been developed to great effect.
The change made after the first preview to the overhead walkway remains (see my previous post) and the scenes set on it work far better without those central railings. From my Circle seat it was hard to tell whether the actors are attached to anything for safety but my friend has reliably informed me that David is indeed clipped on and in his scene with Aumerle puts his cloak over the railing in a way that disguises the wire.
Subtle moments have been enhanced, in particular the fact that Richard has been involved in the murder of his uncle the Duke of Gloucester at the start of the play. This did not seem obvious during previews and I imagine may have been missed if you aren’t familiar with the play but it seemed clearer on Saturday, both in words and action. The moment I noticed between Richard and Mowbray has been enhanced. Richard not only captures him in an intense steely gaze, but their movements add to the tension of the moment – they don’t quite circle each other, but the effect is the same and the message is clear to the audience – Richard is implicated and Mowbray could say so at this point.
Oliver Ford Davies, whose performance I thought was already superb, is now even stronger, which is a testament to how fine an actor he is and I think he is the stand out performance for me. He conveys York’s confusion and unhappiness at being torn between duty to his sovereign (whose actions he cannot support) and to his other nephew Bolingbroke who, as he laments to the Queen, has indeed been wronged by Richard. The comic scenes with his wife have also been heightened and together they brilliantly convey a husband and wife who clearly care about one another, but who are quickly divided by their contrasting actions towards their son Aumerle.
Oliver Rix continues to grow in strength as Aumerle and his relationship with Richard is one of my favourite aspects of this production. I think perhaps my favourite scene is on the battlements on Flint Castle, which is beautifully played by both actors. I am also very excited to see Oliver’s own interpretation of Richard at the public understudy performance next Tuesday.
Michael Pennington remains superb as Gaunt and his early scene with Jane Lapotaire’s Duchess of Gloucester is much improved, as I felt her performance was a little too exaggerated during early previews and is now far more believable. Nigel Lindsay remains excellent as Bolingbroke and his performance carries an air of confidence and authority that are perfect for the future King. Although a small part, Emma Hamilton’s portrayal of the Queen is also stronger and she adds a depth to the role that I haven’t seen before. Her emotional connection to her husband is also much improved.
David Tennant has significantly upped his game in my opinion. Watching Saturday’s performance, it seemed as though he had more scenes on stage because he commanded my attention much more. His performance as Richard is now far more nuanced and he is clearly continuing to develop this difficult character. I love how bored he seems during the duel scene between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, slouching on his throne at one point, staring off to the side in a world of his own. His moments of anger are also much stronger, both in the initial scene when Bolingbroke and Mowbray will not be dissuaded from their challenge and also his aggression towards Gaunt.
The softer quieter moments are also played superbly particularly his return from Ireland and the deposition scene is fantastically played. I noticed a slight change in that Richard did not jump up on to the throne in a defiant manner to demand his last request from Bolingbroke. Instead, on Saturday he simply sat down on the throne and delivered the line “Give me leave to go.” It was not defiant, just sad and he looked physically smaller on the throne and this staging added to my sympathy for Richard at that moment. In my opinion, this deposition scene is one of David’s best as he is able to display his full range – from sarcasm to sorrow to rage (“No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man” is delivered with such powerful hatred now) to humour. I also noticed the clever symmetry that it is Bagot who holds up the mirror for him, linking back to him doing so in the first half of the play when Richard is still King and the look Tennant gives him at this moment, suggesting the irony is not lost on him either, was an effective touch, sending Bagot scuttling away to the shadows.
The staging is still fantastic and the visual backdrops were even more impressive from the Circle’s viewpoint, which also gives a fantastic vantage point for Richard’s prison cell. I also failed to mention in my initial thoughts, the first class efforts of the musicians and singers. They do a fantastic job, adding to the atmosphere and I especially love the combination of the drums and the chanting that transition us from Richard’s prison cell to the new King descending on his throne.
I’m thrilled that the production has come so far in so short a time and no doubt by the end of the run in Stratford-Upon-Avon it will be even stronger. It was never going to wow me in the same way that Hamlet did, mainly due to my preference for the latter as a play. This is however a brilliant, clearly staged production of a Histories play that is less often performed and with such a high quality ensemble I hope it is able to open Shakespeare up to people who may not normally be interested (in much the same way Hamlet did five years ago). My next trip to the RSC is for the public understudy performance next week and I am intrigued to see the difference.
For anyone still hoping to go and without a ticket, it’s worth keeping an eye on the RSC’s website for any returned tickets being put up for resale. Also, the returns queue on the day is another worthwhile option.