On the 31st October I was fortunate enough to experience the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest interpretation of Richard II starring David Tennant in the titular role surrounded by some stellar supporting actors.
Up in the top tier of the audience or ‘the Gods’ as its known in the theatre I felt like a fly on the wall in the royal court as the play begins with a dispute between two nobleman: the King’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke (or King Henry IV as we know him) consummately played with suitable bubbling menace by Nigel Lindsay in his RSC debut and Thomas Mowbray portrayed strongly by Antony Byrne. The dispute concerns the murder of Richard’s late uncle the Duke of Gloucester, at first the King seems disinterested until just as the pair begin to fight he decrees that Mowbray be banished indefinitely and Bolingbroke banished for six years. The subsequent death of Bolingbroke’s father John of Gaunt – (Michael Pennington) who gives an incredibly powerful performance as a man at death’s door due to grief imposed by the banishment of his son, aiming a fury filled tirade at the apathetic Richard regarding the King’s disloyalty to his nation – is the catalyst for Richard’s tragic and fast decline and eventual deposition from the throne at the hands of his cousin Bolingbroke.
Tennant’s mastery of the role here is demonstrated in creating deep empathy for a character that is more often than not: careless, self interested and petulant. Truly a tragic figure, Richard must face up to the difficult concept of the monarch being appointed by God, a notion that modern audiences and actors are no longer familiar with, imagine Prince Charles when/if he succeeds the throne being hailed as God’s representative on Earth? This production chooses to draw parallels between Richard and Jesus, Richard was crowned at the age of ten, responsibility thrust upon him with no concern for the effect it might have on him, later in the play Tennant appears in a white robe with a crucifix necklace around his neck, an interesting comparison if not a little on the nose. There is a very moving scene when the King and his comrades fighting in Ireland discover that their Welsh brothers in arms have abandoned them and that they are fighting a losing battle, Richard bids his entourage sit on the ground, and in front of them he questions his deservedness of the title of king, taking off his crown and casting it away from him. Some actors may have depicted this as an ill-tempered tantrum but Tennant brings such depth to the character, he isn’t just the vain king the audience sees initially. As the play progresses the emotional recesses of the ruler grow and grow, the Bard’s verse becoming more and more insightful, so many quotable fragments come and go. The genius of Shakespeare is that it’s so universal; even though it’s four hundred years old the emotions that we as humans feel are still relevant. Tennant does well to tap into this, even though the tale itself is roughly six hundred years old and concerns the political and social unrest in medieval Britain caused by an elite class that almost none of us can indentify with, the things that Richard feels are common to us all: searching for and loss of identity, loneliness, questioning our place on the Earth.
Another interesting aspect of Tennant’s deft characterisation is the effeminate quality he exudes, his long and luscious hair extensions further extend (pardon the pun) the Christ comparison but also bring to mind a sort of Howard Hughes-esque association, out of touch and deluded. According to myth Richard II was a slightly feminine figure and did gift handsome young men with important political positions and surrounded himself with them. The young, vapid, self interested advisors in the play: Bagot, Bushy and Greene eventually turn out to be one of his greatest downfalls; heightening the unrest felt by the Lords and Earls who decide to aid Bolingbroke in his conquest. Richard’s airy quality helps to add to the sometimes childlike vulnerability of the character, I believe that Tennant’s main objective is to bring as much empathy to the role of the King as possible, as it would be easy to accentuate his flaws and create a very unlikable character. The femininity of Richard culminates in a gay kiss between him and the Duke of Aumerle (Oliver Rix) shortly before the conclusion of the first half, although a rather touching, tender moment it felt slightly unnecessary at the time, however later on it added an interesting, effective layer to the narrative, but I won’t give it away.
Although undoubtedly it was David Tennant’s star power that left no empty seats in the sold out performance, and for that matter a sold out run at the RSC and the Barbican Theatre in London. The former Doctor Who is by no means shouldering this production alone. I’ve already mentioned the heavyweight performance given by Michael Pennington but coupled with this is RSC veteran Oliver Ford Davies’ portrayal of the world weary Duke of York. Expertly serving up a plethora of comedic moments in the ‘confounded old man’ role while superbly playing off Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York as they do the old married couple routine. There’s a great scene where the Duchess is begging Bolingbroke (Now King) to pardon her son (Aumerle) while at the same time the Duke is begetting Bolingbroke not to pardon him. Joined with the humour though is a dignified gravitas appropriate for a figure of the Duke’s stature, his tired wisdom allowing him to see that Richard is a lost cause, so he must reluctantly join with Bolingbroke.
In this mostly brilliant production there are a few weak links sadly, as is always the way. In this play at least the cast proves that Shakespeare to a certain extent is an older actor’s game, perhaps it’s that sufficient life experience is required to convincingly convey all the layered meaning and beauty within his verse. Countering the superb performances from the more seasoned actors and actresses was an incredibly distracting Groom/Servant/Herald played by Elliot Barnes-Worrell.
Fresh out of the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama the young actor was quite clearly over thinking every one of his roles, staring wide eyed at Tennant in several scenes while nodding his head enthusiastically, incredibly self aware throughout the whole production. This came to a head towards the conclusion of the play in the form of an undeserved speaking part directed at the imprisoned King Richard, culminating in a discomforting and awkward embrace.
Aside from this small misstep in casting the RSC’s production of Richard II is a master class in Shakespearian acting. Anchored by David Tennant’s magnificent understanding of his character and at times electric performance, this play highly deserves its sold out run.
Davy Roderick is a burgeoning and talented young writer who looks like he could go onto big things.
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