Review: Richard II (with David Tennant), Royal Shakespeare Company, RST – Stratford upon Avon

Before seeing the new Royal Shakespeare production of Richard II, I wasn’t sure I should review it. I made no secret of the fact I was excited about it but the dark side of anticipation is it builds fortresses between what you want something to be and what it is. Could I be open enough and would the production be strong enough to guide me away from misguided preconceptions? I shouldn’t have worried. In the hands of Greg Doran and his talented cast, the story of a king’s fall from grace takes flight in interesting directions, opens doors I hadn’t seen opened before and more importantly it’s a dramatically thrilling ride.

David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

David Tennant’s Richard is not merely a king among men, he is truly the God’s representative on earth and his actions and understanding of himself come from that. For us as a modern audience, it’s an unpalatable notion and Tennant’s Richard is an unpalatable character. He has no moral considerations or understanding of limitations. When he starts to lose support, it’s the start of a transformation process on a molecular level: it doesn’t matter how much sympathy you felt for Richard until then (very little), this process is violently upsetting and universally redemptive. Richard doesn’t carry the moral heart of the story because he is sympathetic, he carries it because he isn’t. Tennant’s Death of Kings speech is moving in a profoundly upsetting way and his deposition scene is an exercise in controlling others while falling apart. His line to Bolingbroke “Now mark me, how I will undo myself” is not just words. It is a kind of horror you can’t take your eyes away from and the result is intelligent, fearless and poignant.Aumerle emerges as the primary relationship for Richard. In other productions, I can hardly remember Aumerle but here he emerges as the human tragic dilemma of the story. Oliver Rix is earthy, unshowy but full of life and his scenes with Tennant are electrifying. This relationship builds into a dramatically sublime and emotionally resonant ending that sets the bar high in how I want this scene to be.

Nigel Lindsay’s Bolingbroke is steadfast, direct, the shape of things to come. He never has the upper hand over Richard but he has time and history on his side and he knows it. In other productions, Bollingbroke felt emotionally connected to Richard, but here he looks ahead and Richard looks elsewhere.

Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt dominates all scenes he is in (his speech in Act II is revelatory and heartbreaking, even more so since Richard’s behaviour at the same time is beyond disgusting) and Jane Lapotaire ‘s presence in Act I is such a joy, moving but with a sprinkling of dark humour. Oliver Ford Davies as Duke of York navigates the dark treacheries of the play with ease, and his relationship with his son Aumerle has more shade and light than usual. Emma Hamilton as the Queen has an irresistible openness and strength that makes sense of her difficult relationship with Richard and all actors in the company own their respective parts but also the whole play.

The set and dramatic use of space are breathtaking: I don’t remember a design so sparse in the huge RST stage, and at the same time so dramatically vibrant. The backdrop looks both solid and a mirage of deceptive perceptions. Additional touches of bridges lowered from above and the pit opening down below are as visually beautiful as they are meaningful.

Did I have problems with the production? The first hour is slower than I would have liked, but I have felt this in all productions of Richard II (so it’s probably the play, or me). And in a childish way, I would have liked for them to get more viscerally dirty when they drag Richard through the streets of London.

What else is left to say? A lot actually: how this production of Richard II works hand in hand with Edward II at the National, how I started to think the story along other stories of creatures of no morality that need to learn their humanity (Frankenstein for example). I will come back to some of this, in the mean time I am happy to relive and play with the aftertastes of this production.

Linking to another review (and an acknowledgement): Before I wrote my response to the production, I had a long twitter conversation with Emer McHugh that helped distill my thoughts so I thank her. She has written a beautiful review herself, but a word of warning, it’s full of spoilers, tread with caution.

UPDATE 20/10/2013: I wrote another post for all the strands between the RSC production of Richard II and the National Theatre production of Edward II

UPDATE 31/10/2013: Peter Kirwan from the University of Nottingham and the Bardathon blog has written an excellent review that tickles many things lying in my subconscious about the production and makes me want to see it again.

6 responses to “Review: Richard II (with David Tennant), Royal Shakespeare Company, RST – Stratford upon Avon

  1. a) Excellent, unspoilery, succinct review, b) thanks so much for linking to the post (and for the lovely acknowledgement), that’s just lovely!

  2. Pingback: REVIEW [Or First Impressions?]: Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, October 2013. | letters from a patchwork wizard

  3. All good except for mentioning the hair (reminiscent of the extreme hair in the football betting ad) and the way David Tennant models his diction on Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Plus the superb Westminster Hall backdrop visible at the beginning of the play seemed to be invisible (to me at least) in the scene I expected it to re-appear.
    On the other hand… the production was impressive even so…. Music excellent, elder statesmen actors superb, Jane Lapotaire handled her difficult speech/es wonderfully… and I’d prefer David Tennant did a prissy English any day rather than the excruciating Scottish accent ads he does. And I still wish I’d seen his Hamlet in the flesh. And just for afters, for a £100 million-plus make-over, the seating in the theatre is pretty poor.

    • I am not acquainted with Mr Rimmer, so I don’t have an opinion there. Also I ‘ll make the assumption you mean “excruciating ads done with a scottish accent” because frankly everything sounds better with a scottish accent 🙂
      And yes his Hamlet in the flesh was phenomenal.

    • You find Tennant’s native accent excruciating?

      I am looking forward to the worldwide broadcast…. Glad to get a small preview to reassure it is worth the long drive to get to a theater that will show it.

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