Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II in London

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David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Richard II
by William Shakespeare

Barbican Theatre: December 28, 2013
Royal Shakespeare Company

Director – Gregory Doran
Designer – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Tim Mitchell
Sound – Martin Slavin
Music – Paul Englishby
Movement – Mike Ashcroft
Fights – Terry King

Elliot Barnes-Worrell – Harry Percy
Antony Byrne – Mowbray
Sean Chapman – Northumberland
Marty Cruickshank – Duchess of York
Oliver Ford Davies – Duke of York
Gracy Goldman – Lady-in-Waiting
Marcus Griffiths – Greene
Emma Hamilton – The Queen
Jim Hooper – Bishop of Carlisle
Youssef Kerkour – Willoughby
Jane Lapotaire – Duchess of Gloucester
Jake Mann – Bagot
Sam Marks – Bushy
Miranda Nolan – Lady-in-Waiting
Keith Osborn – Scroop
Michael Pennington – John of Gaunt
Joshua Richards – Ross/Lord Marshall
Oliver Rix – Aumerle
David Tennant – Richard II
Simon Thorp – Salisbury
Edmund Wiseman – Bolingbroke


Being a little out of touch with mainstream movies and TV nowadays, I came to the RSC’s new production of Richard II without the usual expectations associated with a famous face (from the screen) in the lead, and this feels like an advantage to me. It is easier to enjoy a play expecting a rounder cast, or indeed expecting nothing in the way of faces and mannerisms. I had forgotten about the new Doctor Whos and that David Tennant had been one, and avoided the Harry Potter films, so the squeals and the mad applause were a surprise. But even so, in reality, it was a balanced cast, and fame doesn’t mean a thing, especially to Shakespeare. Even with Nigel Lindsay indisposed on this day, and Edmund Wiseman stepping out of Harry Percy and into Bolingbroke — tracing a somewhat unconventional one with a slighter build and a not so utilitarian sort of Homo sapiens’s physiognomy as one might usually picture and see in the role — and Elliot Barnes-Worrell, apparently a year out of acting school, in turn filling out an interesting youthful Harry Percy, even a touch child-like still.

David Tennant did create a sense of majesty albeit a fragile one, without feyness (unless in the old sense of the word), sensible but hardly visible as he stood and sat in his halls and castles and dungeons, places recreated on stage with light and mirrors and projections, appropriately enough. He produced this sense but from where and how is hard to say; it was not solely a matter of opulent costumes (he changed, it seemed, for every scene) and convincing props, though these did help. Like the long lost or never finished gothic cathedrals whose architect pushed the arch, vault and buttress technology a little too far, or died before the building was finished and the next generation didn’t dare add a stone, whose slender columns or glass walls collapsed under their own weight, even if that weight was never very much, in Tennant’s Richard one could feel his brittleness from the first scene. He was almost a Romantic Richard, partly because very open in expressing each feeling — and perhaps also his very open homosexuality (kissing Aumerle sloppily on the battlements, good grief) lent an easy vulnerability — but he had somewhat beyond this at his best, his Richard’s vulnerability would have been be clear without the more obvious gestures, all the more so in sitting more flush with the poetic subtlety of the play. The play did as a whole remain understated, multivalent, dense, even subtle and generally respected the unique turned-in quality of the play.

Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester). Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester). Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Gregory Doran’s direction can be thanked for this, as well as David Tennant’s generally good fit into it. The play begins very modestly, with a soft Kyrie sung by three sopranos (though unfortunately they and the bank of trumpeters were electronically over-amplified) — Paul Englishby has composed the play’s religious music in a somewhat modernized ars nova style adapted to his own1  — with no curtain to raise and the house lights still up. The first act is done with great stillness. It is Gloucester’s funeral, they process in with the coffin as the lacrimosa begins, and the Duchess of Gloucester drapes herself over it not giving away in the least her hawkish outburst at John of Gaunt to come in the next scene, though hawkish isn’t quite just since Jane Lapotaire gave it with pathos and poignancy as well as the easier anger, rubbing a certain sore unfairness in her situation. These early scenes played out with a tension of indecision and immobility, with no unnecessary movement. Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s physical fight, though heavy in lead-up, with  their suiting up in armor and positioning themselves and heaving enormous swords, is very brief in the end, only a sword-clash or two. Even these two antagonists seem to feel a touch of restraining fear under their anger which gives them a certain reluctance to escalate the troubles, or at least they show they have the awareness of the consequences, expressed more in their body language than their sharp angry, spitting voices, and the careful symmetry of the placement of the actors on stage. The intelligently written, though perhaps too brief, articles in the program by Helen Castor and Michael Dobson explain the crises leading up to the historical and theatrical events after the death of Gloucester and seem to justify Gregory Doran’s interpretation of the play. (He will direct the Henry IV plays later this year.) At the beginning, the ball is stationary at the top of the hill, what goes up must come down, and all are anxious to see which way it will roll. They dare not touch it for fear of becoming responsible, or guilty. The situation is more like that of a greek tragedy, it is so hard to blame any one person for it and hard to find anybody who can’t take blame, but it is inevitable. Gloucester’s funeral feels like Richard’s too. All this takes place under gothic vaults and ogives, projected in black and white onto a curtain of fine shiny threads, perhaps strung with tiny invisible beads, one in each of the wings and one behind across the back of the stage, giving a sense of great depth and space above without the artificial feeling of actors standing in front of a conventional rear projection screen.

Richard gave an image of charge and majesty to fill the stage statuesquely. This was partly owing to the full wardrobe of long embroidered costumes — the set and costumes are period, down to the armor and broadswords — but even after his downfall, wearing his ragged undershirt, his majesty seemed bent but not completely squashable, partly from the language of his speeches, which retain, or rather finally find a certain spring after the mean ones of the first act, and the way the poignant and magnificently written speeches come one on top of another. It is easier to remember his majesty and listen to his poetry than to remember his cruelty and injustice. It is so easy to feel Bolingbroke might be making a huge political mistake, especially given his pig headed barreling through to Flint Castle and the throne, betraying little of the political shrewdness (except maybe in the final scenes) or of the wisdom which come out in Henry IV Part II, particularly in his dealings with Harry and in his illness. In Richard II Henry’s is more a simple righteous sense of justice, yet perhaps a nascent natural kingly sense of justice. His awareness of the situation around him and himself seems narrow and linear, yet starting to be forced to push branches as the only adequate “candidate” to take charge. The scene where he pardons Aumerle, with the Duke and Duchess of York is vital, however domestic and comic.

David Tennant still King Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

David Tennant still King Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

There were certain lines which David Tennant delivered with a touch too much sarcasm, not enough to deserve the audience’s laughter, but standing out a little bit awkwardly exaggerated, as if the actor were flirting with but not entirely convinced of Richard as man starting to go mad (which others have tried as an interpretation). I don’t see anything in Shakespeare’s poetry that depicts other than a mentally healthy medieval king losing both his crown and his faith simultaneously, the lost crown irreconcilable with the shaken faith, and the situation as inescapable as a relentless series of checks in a chess game, inevitably leading to “mate.” His contempt for Bolingbroke can well demand disdain and a bitter tone of voice, as if he sees the latter as some kind of demon who can’t be purged or grappled with. Tennant’s disdain was spot on, his sarcasm a little too much, a little off-tone. In the end he seemed to discard any hint at true madness, and the madness was never more than a hint in any case, which perhaps is appropriate to his mental state.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is embarking on a project to mark the 450th birthday this year staging all the plays over the next six years. It will be interesting to see what Gregory Doran (also artistic director of the company) does with Henry IV at Stratford in the spring, and it would be wonderful if the other history plays followed not too long after.

  1. The the RSC makes a habit of commissioning new music for its productions and has produced a recording of it with some of the speeches too, and with some of Vaughan Williams’s interesting and beautiful music which he composed for the company 100 years ago. It is rare music, it seems it was left in the RSC archive all this time. They are excerpts, a version of Greensleeves and some morsels of religious music, the recording is a good idea and perhaps will spur a musician to explore Vaughan Williams music for plays.
About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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