What: Richard II by William Shakespeare
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: November 2013
Richard II is not Shakespeare’s best known play. In fact, nobody I spoke to prior to seeing the current production could tell me the whole plot and storyline.
David Tennant is probably the UK’s best known Shakespearean actor. He has achieved this status not for his work on Shakespeare’s plays but because he is an extraordinarily well-known actor who also performs in Shakespeare. His fame comes primarily from his role as Dr Who – even within that role, within the last few days, he was voted the nation’s most popular Doctor.
So, it is an interesting prospect. A production where the standing of the principal actor outweighs the standing of the play, despite the fact that the play was written by William Shakespeare.
Let’s see what developed………
Well, the play storyline is not that complicated and as Shakespeare goes is eminently understandable, even to those who might struggle with some elements of his canon. It would be followed by the majority who came here tonight. Let’s summarise the main body of the plot:
Henry Bolingbroke (who will eventually be Henry IV) accuses Thomas Mowbray of stealing money that belongs to the crown. They will not be reconciled and are about to fight, but Richard stops the combat before it can begin. As a consequence Bolingbroke is exiled for six years and Mowbray is exiled for life.
John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) dies after accusing Richard of improper government. Richard orders the seizure of Gaunt’s property, denying Bolingbroke his inheritance. He then departs for Ireland. On his return, he finds that much of his army has deserted him
Bolingbroke and his supporters meet with Richard. Bolingbroke promises to surrender his arms if his banishment is repealed and his inheritance restored. Richard agrees to his demands…….. but there are still a few more twists in the tale……….
In this particular production, the RSC has gone for a minimalist stage setting contrasted with some startling additions to the stage when these are necessary which appear from above and below.
The music written by Paul Englishby is particularly affecting and used to great effect at the beginning and end of each half of the play as well as in many places within the development of the story. The three soprano singers (Charlotte Ashley, Anna Bolton and Helena Raeburn) are outstanding.
All of the main cast deliver solid performances.
This is the third time I have seen a Royal Shakespeare production which involved David Tennant. The first was “Love’s Labour’s Lost” which was a good production but had none of the overnight sell-out status that has become the norm since his TV fame really exploded. The second was “Hamlet” which I actually reviewed whilst Mr Tennant was out with a back injury and now the third “King Richard II” which again is a sell-out with significant numbers waiting around in the lobby hoping that there will be returns.
One of my criticisms of Tennant’s television roles is that he sometimes appears very limited, relying on re-treading overused facial expressions and seeming less connected to his role the longer he has played it. He has none of these problems in his Shakespearean work. Each role he has taken on, he has done in a way which contrasts with the others. His “Richard II” is a deeply imaginative and thought through one. He brings great individuality to the characterisation. His character is fey, vain and strong-willed. His costume in many of the scenes gives him, to a Western audience, a messianic look (floor length one piece white outfit, long hair, Christian cross around the neck). His acting cannot be said to dominate proceedings but he brings a strong performance in the midst of other strong performances.
Nigel Lindsay, as Henry Bolingbroke, is also memorable, cutting a much more conventionally masculine figure than Richard. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt is also effective, particularly when delivering the “This Sceptr’d Isle” speech which is the hallmark of his character. Emma Hamilton as the Queen is good. You’ll look hard and long to see a flaw in this cast.
The play is divided in a manner which leaves the first half much longer than the second and means that the bulk of the content is before the interval. On the other hand, this arrangement means that after the 20 minute break and your ice cream, you are greeted by the gardener giving a resume of the current status quo.
The audience, still mostly white and middle-class but noticeably younger than most houses at the RSC which don’t need to fill up with schools groups, give the cast an enthusiastic and warm applause at the conclusion. No standing ovation but this seems exactly right for a solid performance of a solid play by a solid cast. It seems odd that Mr Tennant takes a solo bow during this point of proceedings. He is very good but not head and shoulders above the rest, no matter how excited the teenage girls get.
Over a few years, the RSC had a whole series of plays which relied on novelty to sell seats and wasted opportunities to produce good performances of great plays. We had needless Macbeth, gnarled Merchant of Venice and finally empty-headed Troilus and Cressida. Over the last year, the quality of productions has improved exponentially leading into Gregory Doran taking over as Artistic Director. With the new incumbent in place, we hope that this momentum will continue into Henry IV and The Two Gentleman of Verona in 2014.