Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th October, 2013
Hot on the heels of Ben Whishaw’s BAFTA-winning portrayal comes another favourite actor of mine in the title role of Richard II. A big name draw, David Tennant improves on his Hamlet (a characterisation I thought was The Doctor by another name) with a performance that switches from regal reserve to petulant camp and back again. In a world of macho men in leather and shining armour, Tennant’s Richard saunters around in beautiful gowns, with his crown on his wrist like a bracelet. With his hair extensions and sharp features, he is an off-duty drag queen or an old school rock star. The effeminacy and the bitchiness energise a sometimes languid king. It is a captivating performance.
The whole production is redolent with delicate beauty. Projections of pillars and vaulted ceilings capture both the solidity and airiness of a cathedral. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis keeps scenery to a minimum, suggesting locations, complimented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting. Richard’s throne flies in and out on a gantry, suggesting the monarch’s link to divinity – a bone of contention in the play. The visuals are supported by beautiful music performed live by sopranos (the singers not the organised criminals) and trumpeters. Gregory Doran’s production has no problem in engaging the eye and the ear, but what of the emotions and the intellect?
Oliver Ford Davies as York brings humour and heart. Scenes with his wife (Marty Cruickshank) bring comic relief from all the politicking and macho posturing. Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt masterfully handles the play’s greatest hit, the ‘sceptre’d isle’ speech, and Nigel Lindsay’s meaty Bolingbroke makes an effective contrast to Tennant’s light-in-the-loafers king.
For me the most compelling on-stage presence is Oliver Rix as Aumerle. Even in scenes where he has little to say, he is there, intense without drawing focus from the speakers. His scenes with Tennant are the highlights. Upset by Richard’s decision to hand over his crown, Aumerle is comforted by the king in a moment that is more tender than it is homoerotic.
When Richard is set upon by assailants in his dungeon, there is too much of the action hero in his self-defence. The effete king reveals himself to be something of a medieval martial arts expert in a moment that is incongruous with the rest of the characterisation. Yes, Richard would fight for his life, but not in such an obviously choreographed manner. When the fatal blow is struck, it is a moment of shock and surprise – it’s a credit to the schoolgirls in this matinee audience that they gasped at this point rather than at Richard and Aumerle’s kiss.
The play begins and ends with a coffin centre-stage, reminding us of the cycle of kingship: one must die so the next can take over. With its projections and lighting effects, it is a production of surfaces. We don’t really get to grips with the rights and wrongs of who should be on the throne and how he should behave. Richard seizes what isn’t his to raise funds, which leads to rebellion. Opposers of the Royal Mail and NHS privatisations, take note!