Media Courtesy of Kwame Lestrade (RSC)
When one gets the chance to see one of William Shakespeare’s lesser performed histories at the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company that is not something any self respecting Shakespeare fan can turn down. Add to that the eponymous monarch Richard II is played by fan favourite and RSC stalwart David Tennant, then it is a must see performance.
The RSC performance at the Barbican is the same production which has recently closed at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon. The production which reunites director Gregory Doran with Tennant following their highly successful Hamlet
back in 2008. Richard II is the first of the quartet of history plays which culminates in Henry V and his triumphant battle at Agincourt and director Doran has committed to bring the four plays to the RSC between now and 2016. The story of a monarch who is deposed by the blustering Henry Bollingbroke, who we see ascend to the throne as Henry IV, still has modern resonance due to Richard’s blind belief in his power and his reliance on the “spin doctors” in Bushy, Bagot and Greene.
The staging for the production is simple and understated which allows the audience to fully concentrate on the company of amazing performances and the clever use of the throne ascending from the heavens echoing Richard’s belief in the divine right of Kings. The use of the descending throne allows Doran to show the extreme differences between Richard and Henry as from the moment Bollingbroke becomes Henry IV, the throne is firmly earthbound and grounded.
Photo courtesy of Kwame Lestrade (RSC)
The play opens with a grieving Duchess of Gloucester, played by the magnificent Jane Lapotaire, mourning the recently deceased Duke of Gloucester. Enter King Richard in his resplendent glory, all pomp and circumstance who commanded John of Gaunt, to bring forth Henry Hereford, Bolingbroke, to lay charge against the accused Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. This opening scene allows us to see just what sort of monarch Tennant is choosing to play. First of all let’s get the hair out of the way. Tennant’s Richard has hair which any Pantene girl would be proud of however it does not detract from the obvious control Richard has over the assembled court. We are then introduced to the other major player in the piece, Henry Bolingbroke, later to become Duke of Lancaster then Henry IV. Whereas Richard is regal, angelic in appearance with his diaphanous robes and possibly effeminate tone, Bolingbroke, played by Nigel Lindsay is very much the warrior knight and would possibly remind you of a Ray Winstone gangster. The juxtaposition plays throughout the performance and the two handers between Lindsay and Tennant are a joy to watch. Once it has been determined that there will be a tournament to determine the victor between Bolingbroke and Mowbray we are left to witness a heart wrenching performance between Lapotaire’s Duchess of Gloucester and Michael Pennington’s elegant John of Gaunt. Lapotaire plays the part of the grieving widow impeccably and she allows us to understand the belief that Mowbray was responsible for the death of her husband.
The way in which Tennant plays the banishment scene is genius and veers from powerful overlord to that of a spoiled child playing with his subjects. Throughout the performance, the way Tennant dismisses those Richard has no need for is brilliant and shows there is much more to the star than bouncing round in a suit and sandshoes.
As I said, the entire company is incredibly strong and they all work very well off each other, and it shows that no matter who the star name is, an RSC company is still a true ensemble cast and they help to bring the best out in each other.
Michael Pennington who plays John of Gaunt delivers the famous “Methinks I am a prophet new inspired” soliloquy as a man who knows his time is near and he will never see his banished son again, and damns Richard for his destruction of “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”. Although the play is seen as a tragedy, in fact it is called The Tragedie of King Richard II
in the First Folio, there are many comic moments, and Tennant definitely brings them to life.
Watching Lindsay’s Bolingbroke gain followers as Richard is fighting the war in Ireland was awe inspiring as you realise Henry Bolingbroke is a true warrior and has as much if not more love for his country as Richard does. In fact with Tennant and his fabulous manner of dismissing those who bore him and he feels he has no use for, make the audience believe that Richard merely loves being King. Lindsay has a wonderful baritone to his voice and it is totally believable that the Dukes and Lords of England become complicit in Bolingbroke’s plan to regain his lost lands. A hidden gem in the production has to be Sean Chapman and his evil and nasty Duke of Northumberland who takes great delight in his part in the fall of Richard.
However it is once Richard realises he will lose his throne that Tennant gives Richard a human side, and we see the man who believes he is God’s anointed on earth watch his world crumble down round his head. As with in Hamlet
Tennant loves to act barefoot and from the moment he gives his “No matter where; of comfort no man speak; Let’s talk of grave, of worms, and epitaphs” soliloquy, Richard is always barefoot, and I saw that as a choice to show Richard as a fallen man with no allies.
Some of the best performances of both Lindsay and Tennant come when they are with each other as they fight for the crown, Richard so loathed to give up his god given right, and Henry wanting to bring order to the country. Tennant ranges from distraught and destitute to half mad in a single soliloquy and the verbal volleys between the pair leave the audience breathless and not quite sure what side they should be on.
Photo courtesy of Kwame Lestrade (RSC)
Act IV Scene I where Richard finally admits defeat and hands “the hollow crown” to Henry is something that needs to be seen. Tennant and his aloof almost mocking “Here, cousin, seize the crown” leads to a tussle for the crown which allows Tennant to run the gambit of emotion and shows the true horror of a King deposed and disgraced. Lindsay’s Bollingbroke, now Henry IV is left as a bystander in the final scenes of Richard the King, and the performances of both actors are wonderful.
Oliver Ford Davies, who plays the Duke of York is a hidden gem in this production, and the scene where he discovers his son is plotting to kill Henry leads into the only true comic scene in the whole play. Again all kudos to Nigel Lindsay as he plays the bewildered monarch as his aunt and uncle fight to a tee and Marty Cruickshank who plays the Duchess has the audience in stitches.
However this comic interlude leads into the death of Richard and the interesting staging of Tennant’s now Richard of Bordeaux in a sunken prison cell and in sackcloth adds to the sadness of the truly fallen King. His final speech which so mirrors John of Gaunt’s final words had me in tears, and at the moment of his death at the hand of his friend truly shows Tennant’s emotional power on the stage.
The show I saw got a standing ovation and Tennant genuinely seemed moved by this and rightly so. It is a true ensemble company and although there is no doubt that Mr Tennant has had a huge draw to selling out the entire run, I have asked for tickets to both King Henry IV Parts I & 2
which will be in March next year. The RSC will be a poorer company when Greg Doran leaves and I can’t wait to watch this production collect the awards it is due, and I for one hope to see Nigel Lindsay in much more in the future. The question is will Tennant’s Richard be victorious at this years Olivier awards or will another fan favourite across town steal his “hollow crown”.
is at London’s Barbican until January 26 2014 however it is sold out. Day seats and returns are available daily from The Barbican Box Office.
Listen to Richard's final solilquy from the RSC Richard II CD of Music and Speeches below: