[A word of caution: if you intend on seeing Richard II and want all of its surprises kept intact, then abandon hope, all ye who enter here.]
When it was first announced that David Tennant was to play Richard II in Greg Doran’s production at the RST, I was quite excited. To start with, Richard II is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s so beautifully written, and also so very moving: I remember reading it for the first time around this time last year, sitting in the Shakespeare Institute library with my jaw agape because I had just finished reading 3.2. It’s where Richard fully realises the extent of Bolingbroke’s uprising, where he recognises the tide is turning against him, that the fact that he is ‘anointed’ won’t save him. And it culminates in that wonderful ‘hollow crown’ speech: ‘Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,’ he says, ‘And nothing can we call our own but death | And that small model of the barren earth | Which serves as paste and cover to our bones’. It dawns on you, the reader, that Richard is about to lose everything, and nothing he can own (not even his life) can be his anymore. The veneer begins to slip, you begin to see the pathetic little man behind the crown and the sceptre, and you can’t help but feel for him. I’ve never had a play have such an immediate emotional impact on me, just on the page.
But anyway. Back to 2013. I was excited about this production. But for some strange reason, I could not place Tennant in the role. I knew that he would be GOOD, at least, but I could not discern how he would approach it at all. I guess this wasn’t helped by the poster that was released, which now adorns the programme cover: a portrait of the actor sat back in a chair with the Westminster Portrait behind him (as seen above). It doesn’t really offer any clues as to what the aesthetic of the production may be, compared to other RSC productions such as this year’s As You Like It (which displays two muddy lovers kissing at Glastonbury, hinting at the festival-y, summery setting) and 2012’s Richard III (which emphasised the dominance of the female characters as they surrounded Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard as he sat atop a globe). But a picture of Tennant in jeans and trainers with a painting? What does that mean? Is it just emphasising the star quality of the production more than anything?
I guess this is the part of the review where I reassure the reader that Tennant is actually quite good in the role. He starts off as rather elevated, impossible to read, and also quite unpredictable and petty (his throwing down of his sceptre during Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s duel is played on a whim, almost out of sheer boredom). But as any good Richard does, he slides towards earning our sympathies as the production progresses: he’s particularly on fine form during 3.2, as we watch him break down in front of all his followers. I found myself constantly comparing his performance to that of Ben Whishaw’s in The Hollow Crown throughout the first half: whereas both portrayals present an effeminate, flighty, and fey king, Tennant’s differs to that of Whishaw’s in his playfulness and aggression: he pushes Emma Hamilton’s Queen around, ordering her to ‘be merry’, and violently grabs Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt, despite the latter being on his deathbed. Whishaw’s aloof portrayal almost resembles some kind of Regina George figure (but, as Poly Gianniba points out, he clearly doesn’t want the responsibilities he’s been shackled with), but Tennant plays a rather child-like king, who veers from throwing temper tantrums to revealing an acute vulnerability when all is lost. And whereas the king’s homosexuality is only hinted at in The Hollow Crown, Tennant’s Richard forges a close connection to Oliver Rix’s Aumerle, sharing a tender kiss with him at Flint Castle. It’s this relationship that dominates this production: Aumerle takes the place of Exton in murdering the king, and his divided loyalties to Richard and his father (and additionally, Bolingbroke) torment him. Rix is particularly good in conveying the character’s pain, and compliments Tennant’s performance well: his slowly dissolving into tears as Richard ponders ‘What must the king do now? Must he submit?’ is quite poignant, leading to the tender moment that they share. Swinging their legs over the parapet, they are two boys standing alone against the world, with nothing else but each other.
Other than Tennant and Rix, there are some excellent performances from the rest of the cast: some have quite limited stage time, but still make an impact. Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester becomes the production’s pre-show, draping herself across her dead husband’s coffin — and continues to do so for the entirety of 1.1. Whereas I wonder if Doran wanted to get the most that he possibly could out of Lapotaire and of this small part, it works in that it centralises Gloucester’s death amidst the business that Mowbray and Bolingbroke have in the first scene. Thus, it provides a smooth transition to the following scene that Lapotaire shares with Pennington’s Gaunt, which is in itself quite tender and affecting. Naturally, Pennington goes on to completely nail ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, | This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’: raging against the dying of the light, it’s a performance of frustration, guilt, and regret. Hamilton is quite touching as the Queen, completely oblivious to her husband’s dominance over and disinterest in her. Oliver Ford Davies is not just funny as York, but can be also quite cruel towards his onstage son, and quickly becomes exasperated at his, and the king’s, actions. We can’t neglect Bolingbroke: Nigel Lindsay is similar to Rory Kinnear’s in his sheer imposing stature, but plays him as cocksure, cynical, and swaggering, although whether this too is nothing more than a veneer is up to debate. It’s also interesting to note that Lindsay played Ariel to Tennant’s Katurian in the National’s production of The Pillowman a number of years ago. Whereas I can’t judge what their dynamic may have been like in that production, and whereas the Richard/Aumerle relationship is emphasised more greatly than Richard/Bolingbroke, the antagonistic dynamic that Richard and Bolingbroke engage in reflects that of the bullish detective and the accused writer in McDonagh’s play. Only here, the dynamic keeps shifting: 3.2 reduces Richard to tiny little pieces, but the deposition scene has him running rings around Bolingbroke: refusing to let go of the crown, standing and shouting on top of his throne, and becoming Bolingbroke’s very own personal space invader armed with a mirror. And while Lindsay may not have an awful lot to say in this scene, his derisive laugh and gesturing after Richard following his departure conveys so much: a need to save face, an attempt to regain some control over what has happened.
The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is simple. Once you enter the theatre, the initial pre-show with Lapotaire and the coffin, set in a black austere court, immediately makes an impression. Characters use minimal props, ascend an ascending or descending parapet, and the use of holograms, along with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, effectively conveys a sense of place for each scene: the world of the production is vaguely medieval, but not necessarily committed to it (but such is Shakespeare’s commitment to historical accuracy, anyway). But Brimson Lewis’ set deceives you with its simplicity (evoking Doran’s Macbeth and its bare, dark stage full of surprises): the floor opens up to reveal Richard’s bareboned prison towards the end, trapping him under the stage. It emphasises his isolation, solitude, and confinement, similar to Sam West’s performance of the soliloquy in a standing wooden box at the Swan in 2001. It is economical yet effective, and the same could be said of Paul Englishby’s score, which is dominated by the singing talents of three sopranos and a number of trumpets sounding.
So yes, I quite liked this production, and I’m excited to see it again soon in the Barbican. Runs in Stratford until 13 November, and runs in London from 9 December to 25 January.
POSTSCRIPT: Much thanks to Poly Gianniba for the long, interesting, stimulating twitter conversation about the production, some elements of which surfaced here and still linger in my thoughts regarding the play in performance. You can find her excellent (and unspoilery!) review here. Also, all references to the play have been taken from the most recent Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011). A fantastic critical edition which I’d thoroughly recommend.