Theatre Review – David Tennant as Richard II back at the Barbican
It has been quite a while since I first saw the RSC’s Richard II with David Tennant and the production has certainly come a long way since that first preview in October 2013 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This weekend saw its return to the Barbican for only nine performances (four now remain, as part of the four King & Country cycles running over the next two weeks). I was curious to see how it would compare with the previous incarnation.
In my opinion, this production has only grown stronger with the changes. There are some actors I miss but, overall, of the two versions this is the stronger and it’s a shame there isn’t more time for the ensemble to really bed in and strengthen it further. It is a testament to the quality and confidence of this ensemble (most of whom have been with the RSC through all three Histories) that it is so good straight off the mark.
As regular readers of this blog know, two years ago I gave my thoughts after the first two previews of the production and then later reviewed the production after it opened, (as well as reviewing the superb understudy run). However, I was so impressed with the show this weekend (yes I did go more than once and will be seeing it again), that I thought it would be interesting to consider the changes that have been made (whether significant or subtle), which will be something for me to look back on and hopefully prove of interest to anyone unable to see this run. This will therefore be longer than my usual theatre reviews.
The fact that only nine actors from the original production have returned (and one of those not in the same role) means that this was always going to feel like a new interpretation and of all the casting changes, the biggest difference comes from Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke. After playing King Henry IV for so long in the next play of the cycle, it is wonderful to see such a superb actor in this role (which let’s face it, is the more interesting part of the character’s story arc). Britton is utterly superb. From the end of scene one I knew this was going to be an impressive performance. I did enjoy Nigel Lindsay’s portrayal, but Britton simply breathes Bolingbroke and gave a different slant on the role to Lindsay. In the original run, I always thought it seemed as if Bolingbroke becomes King by accident. Events get away from him. Not so here. Britton’s Bolingbroke is not a fan of Richard from the beginning and on his exile you sense he will be back for power. He wants to bring Richard down from his lofty position and will achieve it.
Britton’s time as Henry IV only makes his portrayal here richer, with subtle changes adding depth to the character. His rage in the opening scene at the death of his uncle Gloucester, his bubbling anger on being exiled, stamping the floor in defiance (once so hard he damaged the stage!), make clear his mind. The sun shall indeed be shining on him in exile and had Richard not disinherited him, you sense he would still have returned with an army behind him.
He also enhances the relationship between Henry, Northumberland (Sean Chapman) and Harry Percy (Matthew Needham), the two who will take part in plotting his downfall not too far in the future. In one moment, he takes both of their hands, affirming their bond, which carries a wonderful irony when you know what is to come in the next play. He also adds humour to places I hadn’t expected – pretending not to be himself to confuse Harry Percy is a lovely touch, which also makes him likeable and human, as well as being a force to be feared. With such a strong stage presence and with so much ease with the text, he is a joy to watch and I’m sorry he won’t have longer to play this role.
The other significant cast change is that of Aumerle, who is so pivotal in this production. I loved Oliver Rix’s performance, which developed so much over the run, adding layers of emotional depth to the character. I admit I was sorry he wasn’t returning, but also felt sure that Sam Marks was the only choice to replace him (after seeing his Aumerle against Rix’s Richard in the understudy performance). Sam is a fine Aumerle and has already begun to settle and grow in the role over a few short performances.
I have always found Aumerle’s journey in this production interesting to watch, as he is always conflicted no matter what is happening around him. Sam plays this sense of conflict wonderfully, right from the start. In the moments before his duel with Mowbray, there is real warmth between Bolingbroke and Aumerle, suggesting they are quite close. However Aumerle is noticeably uncomfortable on seeing Richard’s expression of disapproval (and perhaps jealousy) as he watches from on high. Aumerle’s own disapproval and horror at Richard’s treatment of Gaunt’s possessions on his death is clear and yet he is still viewed as Richard’s ally by Northumberland and his men in those moments. As the production moves to its conclusion, his ultimate conflict as to where he fits in to this new order, leads to his final tragic actions, which if you focus on him from the beginning becomes all the more moving by the end. For me, it is Aumerle’s journey in the play that is the most tragic. Yes Richard loses his crown and finally his life, but Aumerle loses everything and everyone he cares about, before finally losing himself through his final terrible choice. The more I see this choice of ending for Richard II, the more I see how perfectly it fits and I wouldn’t be surprise if this is the ending Shakespeare had always intended.
Sam is also wonderfully developing the emotional connection needed between him and David Tennant’s Richard to give the end its impact and his bond with Richard on his return from Ireland is clear. Then there is Flint Castle – which has always been my favourite scene of this production.
Thankfully it remains just as powerful, if not more so, with Sam Marks and David Tennant having even more of a charged, beautiful, tender connection than Tennant and Rix managed to build. I can only imagine how incredibly electric this would become after three months, when it is already so good after five performances. Their intimacy and affection on that castle wall, as they hold one another, makes Richard’s acceptance of defeat even more upsetting after this point of true connection with another person, perhaps the most affection he has ever experienced in his life. Later, on Aumerle’s own unravelling when his treason is discovered by his father, Sam Marks crumbles before the audience’s eyes. It’s a very affecting moment (or still was for me). Oh how I wish this was also recorded, even if just in the archives.
He is an absolutely, worthy successor to a character and a portrayal that I loved so much originally. Watching him grow as an actor over the last two years with the RSC has been a joy and I look forward to seeing him in many more roles to come.
Other cast changes
In terms of other casting changes, Julian Glover’s Gaunt has a nice relationship with Britton’s Bolingbroke, but he lacks the stage presence of Michael Pennington, whose “Sceptred Isle” speech was always beautiful. Matthew Needham’s Harry Percy is a wound cog, aching for a bloody battle and I look forward to seeing his Hotspur next week. Leigh Quinn’s Queen has a tenderer bond with Richard making their parting sadder than before. Sarah Park’s Duchess of York is a feistier woman than Marty Cruickshank’s was and although these later scenes still carry their humour, she doesn’t quite have the same comedic double-act with Oliver Ford Davies as Cruickshank did. I was also impressed by Robert Gilbert, playing Greene (but also others later on) and I’ll keep my eye out for him in the future. I do miss Anthony Byrne as Mowbray and would have loved to see him confronting Britton’s Bolingbroke.
In terms of significant scene changes there are only really two with substantive differences, both of which work much better than in the original production.
The scene in which Aumerle is pardoned now sets up what is to follow even more clearly than before. The King hands him his own dagger on pardoning him, assumedly to indicate that he doesn’t view him as a threat. Seeing Aumerle looking at that dagger you can almost sense his train of thought. On top of that, on receiving some written news (I assume news of more plotting by Richard’s supporters), King Henry gives the line “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” while thrusting the paper at Aumerle, who walks off reading it intently. This character, who has always been so conflicted, now has all he needs to make his final tragic decision and I thought it worked very well.
The prison scene is the most altered. Gone is the below-stage pit. Instead Richard arrives from the back of the stage, chained to posts, with the stage becoming the bottom of a dark, dank cell. This means Tennant is fully visible, centre stage, as he gives those final lines and Aumerle’s final act takes place. I also loved how the dead king slips to the back of the stage, as the new king descends directly above. The imagery of the two, one laid out dead and the other enthroned is quite eerie and perfectly depicts the transient nature of the crown at that point.
Other changes are, I imagine, due to choices made by the actors. I particularly love the tweak to the final moments, with Bolingbroke now looking up in terror, as if he really can see Richard’s ghost looking down, as he removes the crown from his head and clutches it, as York looks on as if wondering what it is the King thinks he sees. This gives the end a strong, powerful beat, which perfectly sets up the beginning of Henry IV.
All of the returning actors are excellent; bringing their developed knowledge and understanding of these characters, for some built over four plays, with them. Sean Chapman continues to impress as the intimidating Northumberland; Simon Thorp is wonderful as Salisbury (what a fabulous voice he has) to highlight just two. Oliver Ford Davies is of course still brilliant as York. Watching him perform Shakespeare is a masterclass of quality for me every single time.
As for Mr. Tennant, he has clearly thought about all the aspects of his performance that he could improve and has done exactly that, meaning his Richard is now even stronger than ever. It’s a million miles from that first preview (after which I was somewhat disappointed). Every bored expression during those early scenes is subtle and spot on. Richard’s sense of entitlement at his position could not be clearer! The “Death of Kings” speech is beautiful – no over the top insistence on them sitting down from him (which often elicited laughs from the audience). Now Richard says this as a man in utter despair, exhausted by his world. There was silence in the theatre each time.
I’ve already praised the Flint Castle scene already, but Tennant has honed those final quiet moments of reflection to perfection. The way he drags the crown towards himself, scraping it against the metal of the gangway, creating the only sound after such a tender moment with Aumerle and his expression as he gazes at it, before finally releasing a heavy sigh is still incredibly poignant. You don’t need words to know exactly what he is feeling in that moment. It is utterly magical.
He has also thought more about the deposition scene, which was already fantastic to watch. He and Jasper Britton are so wonderful together and I love how his reluctance to resign the crown is clearer. As well as his changing of his mind to hand over the crown, David now adds in a few exhales of breath, as if Richard is psyching himself up to saying the words “I resign to thee” to Henry. It was clear throughout the production that Tennant was giving his entire performance everything he had.
After returning home yesterday and thinking about the production, I couldn’t help but think of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, that being the last Shakespeare I saw on the Barbican stage beforehand. Although I thought Benedict did a great job (and he remains one of the finest actors in my mind), everything that frustrated me about that production was emphasized by seeing its exact opposite in Richard II. You don’t need a big set, lots of needless props, or people moving in slow motion in the background during pivotal speeches to create an impressive production. All you need is solid direction and a set of actors who have the understanding of the text and therefore the confidence to sell it emotionally. Get that right and it’s spellbinding. For me, that’s something that sets the RSC apart from other Shakespeare and will keep me returning again and again (with or without Mr. Tennant).
I look forward to saying farewell to this production in London next week and then saying a final farewell at its final performance in New York in April. No doubt I’ll write about that here too.
Richard II has four remaining performances at the Barbican – Tuesday 12th, Friday 15th, Tuesday 19th and Friday 22nd January. The Barbican has started to release tickets for all four cycle plays separately, so keep an eye on the website for any last minute returns or try for day seats / returns on the day.