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Richard II, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Richard II, Barbican

Richard II, Barbican

David Tennant reasserts his Shakespearean credentials with a fine Richard II. But this is more than a one-man show

No longer a time lord, but still out of place amongst mere mortals: David Tennant's Richard IIKwame Lestrade/RSC

Richard II arrives in London after a highly successful Stratford run and while the glow of David Tennant’s Hamlet resides still in the memory. Surprisingly, the pleasure of the production lies not so much in dazzle as solidity. This doesn’t give a bold new reading but a robust interpretation; it is not a star vehicle (so often with the star surrounded by mediocre support) but one of the strongest company performances of Shakespeare that I’ve seen for many a year.

Though Richard II can easily be seen as a stand-alone play, it’s actually the first of a tetralogy that includes the Henry IVs and Henry V, and director Gregory Doran works hard to put the play in that context. We have a firm sense of both the political turmoil that proceeds the action and the uncertainly of where it’s headed. This is not just a warning about the ills that can befall a king who fails to responsibly manage his kingdom, it's also about the subtle contracts and traditions that hold a monarch in place; few plays show a crown taken with such trepidation.  

Few plays show a crown taken with such trepidation

It opens with a bold (in its length) and very pleasurable prelude: the stage is transformed into a cathedral, darkly majestic yet mournful, in which an elderly woman drapes herself over a coffin, long grey hair streaking her black gown, as a trio of sopranos sing from high above her. The woman is the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire, pictured below), the dead man her husband, more than likely murdered on the orders of the king. Eventually the lights goes down and one, two, then a whole company enter the woman’s grief. Thus Doran gives a clear impression of the historical back story, the malign actions of the king before this final chapter of his reign, which charts unfinished business between he and his noblemen.

That achieved, Tennant is let loose. Richard is a king pumped up, nay deluded by the belief that he has been chosen by God. And as he is called in to manage the dispute between two warring noblemen, Tennant’s king really does seem to be descending from heaven – or, more accurately, another planet. With high-pitched, effete voice, decked out in white robes and cascading hair, cradling his sceptre in his arms, eyes distracted, he seems not to have got to grips with these pesky humans.

Yet this is more than simple flamboyance: the arrogance is comic, but also chilling, and sets Richard up perfectly for the later tumble back to Earth.

Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Mowbray (Antony Byrne) are accusing each other of treason, each most likely covering his own back in the unstable realm. Richard seems to waver, first counselling an amicable accord, then acceding to their desire for a duel, then reneging on this and banishing the pair of them; the final outcome is probably what he wanted all along.

In thrall to sycophantic playboy cronies, dismissive of his elder statesmen Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and York (Oliver Ford Davies), regarding the kingdom as a cash cow to fuel his reign, the cynical, cavorting king is headed for a fall. Stealing the exiled Bolingbroke’s inheritance is the last straw for the exiled duke and sets up a confrontation between “God’s gift” and the man of the people.

Having made such an otherworldly arse of the man at the outset, the pathos Tennant now wrings from the character is all the more remarkable

While Richard’s aloofness from his subjects also, aptly, keeps him slightly removed from the audience, Tennant draws him vividly towards us as the king is brought to heel. The realisation that he has lost all support to the returning Bolingbroke – one of the great turnarounds in drama – is brilliantly conveyed; his subsequent, painful reluctance to physically hand over the crown to his vanquisher (while maintaining the verbal dexterity to run rings around him) is even better. Having made such an otherworldly arse of the man at the outset, the pathos Tennant now wrings from the character is all the more remarkable.

Around him, Lapotaire is a whirlwind of righteous grief, Pennington stirs in his dying condemnation of the “landlord” of the kingdom, and Ford Davies (Polonius opposite Tennant’s Hamlet) is a joy as the conflicted York, twisted every which way by his sense of duty, loyalty, tradition and pragmatism. Byrne’s Mowbray, Sean Chapman’s no-nonsense Earl of Northumberland and Emma Hamilton’s Queen all make strong impressions.

The one stumbling block for me was Lindsay, whose Bolingbroke seems a stolid presence amongst so much guile. Much of the nuance of the play – residing, unusually for Shakespeare, in what is not said – concerns the duke’s awareness that to take the crown from an anointed king is sacrilegious; Lindsay captures the caution but not the calculation behind his character's ambition. The absence of an able foil for Richard, most felt in the climactic scenes, mars an otherwise fine production.

  • Richard II at the Barbican Theatre until 25 January 2014
Tennant’s king really does seem to be descending from heaven – or, more accurately, another planet


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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