You generally enter a theater with certain expectations. You may be familiar with the play, or you may know one or more of the actors. Last night’s production of Richard II, at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, checked both of those boxes. I’ve read Richard II, and seen film adaptations, and I’ve seen David Tennant perform, most notably in the RSC’s filmed adaption of Hamlet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store).
David Tennant is quite a well-known actor here in the UK, notably for having been Doctor Who for several years. While I’ve never seen him in Doctor Who, I have seen him in other television series. (Just last week, another short series with Tennant, The Escape Artist, started broadcasting.)
Many of the people attending this sold-out performance of Richard II were coming to see David Tennant, not to see Shakespeare. Tennant is no Shakespeare newbie; in addition to the Hamlet I mentioned above, he’s appeared in four other RSC Shakespeare productions, as well as several other non-Shakespeare plays put on by the RSC. Tennant is a brilliant Hamlet, and Richard II seemed like a perfect role for him.
Curiously, much of the British press, when reviewing the play, stressed Tennant’s long hair, such as a review in The Telegraph, which says, “His hair takes some getting used to.” Or the Daily Mail, which said, “But there is no getting away from the fact that in the centre of the show is that astonishing hairdo worn by David Tennant’s nail-varnished Richard.”
Frankly, the hair, being nothing more than a costume, was not worth focusing on. It’s better to just look at the role, and the way he performed it. Tennant does inhabit the role of Richard II, but, unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not up to his level.
Last night’s production was a bit disappointing. The company seemed tired, perhaps because they had played a matinee in the afternoon, or maybe because the play has now been running for a month, making it harder to keep up the energy.
The play opened with a coffin at the center of the stage, and the Duchess of Gloucester, played by Jane Lapotiere, leaning on the coffin in sorrow. During the entire first scene, where Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke accuse each other of treason, she lays her head on the coffin. After the king attempts to make peace between them, he orders Mowbray and Bolingbroke to fight.
The Duchess, alone now with John of Gaunt, laments the murder of her husband by Thomas Mowbray, while John of Gaunt, feels that Richard was responsible. Lapotaire is a venerable Shakespearean actor, but I felt her speeches here – her only part in the play is in this scene – wavered between being over-acted and too hard to hear.
Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray were well cast, with Nigel Lindsay playing the former, the man who would become king. His rough and coarse manner and speech were an interesting counterpoint to Tennant’s Richard, whose haughty and somewhat effeminate nature showed the two of them to be opposites in many ways.
Much of the first part of the play, which sets up Bolingbroke’s coup d’état, and Richard’s deposition, was sluggish. While there was some fine acting – notably Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York – the entire company seemed hesitant. Richard II is only present in a couple of scenes during this period, and the play only really came alive for me in Act III, Scene 2, when Richard has returned from Ireland, and learns that Bolingbroke has claimed his late father’s (John of Gaunt) estate, that Ricard annexed when the latter died, and has raised an army. Tennant showed Richard II’s humanity in the speech that begins:
“No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?”
The long deposition scene, in Act IV, Scene 1, was excellently played, with Tennant playing perfectly the fallen king:
“Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;”
For most of the play, the set was minimalist, with the coffin on stage in the beginning, and nary a bit of furniture, with one or two exceptions. However, there was an interesting sort of scaffolding that held the throne, which descended from above the stage at times, suggesting the link between the king and heaven. This throne worked in some scenes, but in Act III, Scene 3, Bolingbroke, the Duke of York and Northumberland were speaking to Richard II who was standing atop the walls of a castle, but were facing away from him, toward the audience.
And during the scene when Richard is in prison, the top of much of the stage pivoted up, showing Tennant in a dark hole. In that scene, Aumerle kills Richard II – which is not in the original play. Perhaps director Gregory Doran thought the scene where Aumerle asks the now king Henry IV to pardon him for his treasonous plans, prior to the prison scene, doesn’t fit very well unless Aumerle has some other role in the play.
In the final scene, Henry hears of those conspirators who were killed, and Aumerle brings the body, in a coffin, to Henry. This scene, with its many deaths, lacked gravitas; it was over too quickly, and there was little more than words. Here was a newly crowned king looking at the king he had replaced, perhaps thinking what Richard II said in Act III:
“How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
Richard II is an exploration of tyranny and the violence it engenders, and each new king must understand, as Richard II did, that his days are numbered. (The word “death” appears 45 times in the play.) That new king should have shown, in some way, that he was aware what might await him, but the play ended too quickly. The recent filmed version of Richard II, which was part of The Hollow Crown television series (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), showed this much better, with a long, slow ending where Henry seems to see his future in the face of dead Richard.
Paul Englishby’s original music was excellent; it was a slightly atonal medieval-style vocal music, with three sopranos perched high up to the right of the stage, and a group of instrumental musicians in the same spot to the left. It gave the play an interesting feel, especially as the women started singing before the play began – and before the house lights went down – and after the curtain calls. There is a CD available of this music, which also contains some speeches from the play; curiously, while it’s sold on CD at the RSC, it only seems to be available by download from the iTunes Store outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
There was much to like in this production, and much that could have been better. David Tennant was brilliant in the two main sections of the play when Richard II becomes aware of his own mortality and when he gives up his crown. Some of the acting was excellent; some was middling. I felt that the set was too stark for much of the play, and this gave the actors little to do. But Tennant did shine in this role, and if you can’t get a ticket to see it in Stratford-Upon-Avon, or later in London, the RSC is broadcasting it live to cinemas in the UK and around the world on November 13.