This new production of ‘Richard II’ is the first in a new, three-year partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company and its old London base, the Barbican Centre, and if it suffers a bit from ‘show casting’ with David Tennant in the lead, it actually acquits itself fairly well by the final curtain call.
Edmund Wiseman played the part of Bolingbroke at both shows yesterday in place of Nigel Lindsay, and he was absolutely excellent, displaying a certain amount of chemistry between himself and Tennant. Reviews of Lindsay’s performance have compared him to Rory Kinnear’s Iago in the National Theatre’s recent ‘Othello’, and if this is so, Wiseman is quite a different type of Bolingbroke, young and hungry for power but no thug on the make.
Tennant’s Richard has been publicised heavily as the main draw here, and he is very good in places, although for me he didn’t quite convince as either the vain and arrogant king led on by flatterers in the first half, or the pathetic man stripped of his power and the divine right of kings after the interval. His fans have a habit of laughing at moments which should be serious and affecting, and although this is probably not Tennant’s fault, it does harm his performance a little bit. The choice of a long wig as well has perhaps given his Richard a touch of effeminacy which colours his depiction of the king deposed in the second half (and his white smock and bare feet emphasise a link with God/Christ in a rather heavy-handed way).
The sets are superb, although on the surface, minimalist. A chapel setting which opens the play with a choir and the grieving Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) with the coffin of her murdered husband gives way to open ground, castles, courts, and halls with a clever use of lighting, music, video projection and a few stage tricks. This is a Richard with spectacle, where something is always going on and even the smaller roles and walk-ons are in the thick of the action (Elliot Barnes-Worrell stepping up to play Harry Percy, Keith Osborn as Scroop, Joshua Richards in a number of roles including the palace gardener, Jim Hooper as the Bishop of Carlisle, Oliver Rix, impressive as Aumerle).
In supporting players, we have a quartet of senior actors (Lapotaire already mentioned – her grief stricken Duchess may be a little over the top for this production but it is good to see her fighting fit again following her stroke and rehabilitation; Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, his ‘Methinks I am a prophet’ speech beginning in an almost conversational way rather than the speech with gravitas some of his predecessors such as Gielgud have chosen to interpret this dying Royal princes final words of blessing for his country; Oliver Ford-Davies, superb as York, playing at times for comedy and at times for tragedy, as all gifted actors do, keeping their performance balanced; and Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York, bringing a touch of light relief after the deposition scene).
Gregory Doran’s production takes a couple of liberties with the plot, notably near the end where the ‘reveal’ of Richard’s murderer is distracting, and a weird addition to the original play. His adaptations have often been described as ‘safe’ and I think I would agree that this Richard takes no real risks, but it is a good evening out, and although I would still not describe David Tennant as an accomplished Shakespeare actor (he plays to the gallery, as they say, as his old ‘Doctor Who’ role a bit too much), he’s improved markedly from the days I saw him at Stratford in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
While watching this Richard I was thinking of the production I saw at the RSC some years ago, with Samuel West in the lead and David Troughton as Bolingbroke – very much a case of the delicate, spoiled prince opposite the rough warrior duke – and noting that this new production is much more traditional, opulent and showy. It isn’t as emotionally engaging, though, although there are moments I’ll remember – the queen and her king’s last farewell, Richard’s descent in full regalia despite the knowledge he has lost his support and his kingdom, the soundless depiction of father/son dynamics (Gaunt and Bolingbroke, York and Aumerle), the nuggets of comedy where they are required.