Richard II is shadowed by a crushing and overwhelming feeling of loss. Ethereal sopranos sing a chilling lament, the widowed Duchess of Gloucester howls from behind tear-stained cheeks, and the members of the court march in funereally. It is this sense of grief and decline that hangs like a spectre over the rest of the production. Gregory Doran’s staging of the House of Plantagenet’s fall comes as the first production in the RSC’s new plan to perform the entirety of Shakespeare’s works in six years, and if Richard II is anything to go by – beautifully tragic, marked by spellbinding performances – the next half-decade looks extremely promising.
David Tennant’s titular monarch is mesmerising. An effete Richard, he is exhaustingly careless and vain, charged with a lightning wit (very much like his Hamlet), and a decided effeminacy. Emphasised in his shimmering, dress-like robes and those wondrous hair extensions, it is when he stands beside his queen and we notice that their hair is identical in auburn hue that his effeminacy becomes undeniable. Aside from their frames, there is very little which distinguishes the two married monarchs when they turn away from the stalls. Richard is spellbindingly interesting; and the relationship between Aumerle and himself (charged with more sexual energy than Richard’s rather dispassionate treatment of his wife) is explored well in Doran’s production.
Set against Bolingbroke’s (that is, Nigel Lindsay’s) aggression and the masculine bravado of the other dukes and barons, with their endless glove-throwing and accusations of treachery, Tennant’s Richard seems separate. He staggers into the opening scene and continues his monarchical duties with a distinct disinterest and carelessness. Like Stephen Brimson Lewis’ simple yet beautiful set, created predominantly through projected images, the world of the play is unstable and almost immaterial. England is in a precarious political state and very little seems grounded, especially its ‘wasteful king’. Later garbed in flowing white, he appropriates the image of Christ, as if undergoing some royal Passion during his deposition at Westminster. As his character’s monarchical power wanes, the strength of Tennant’s performance rises; he delivers his “sad stories about the death of kings” whilst crawling along the stage.
Though stricken with internal guilt and regret, he retains the razor wit, toying with the crown by popping it upon Aumerle’s head, flipping it over as a bucket when Bollingbroke attempts to grab it, or throwing it carelessly across the stage. It is this brilliant casualness which captures Tennant’s Richard – he is literally playing with the royal power. Towards the end we see a broken king laying supine in a dungeon, more Promethean than angelic, but he is murdered only to appear right in the closing moments upon the gantry – once again in blindingly Christlike apparel – looking down upon the ascension of Henry IV.
Though it is probably for the Doctor Who star that the multitudes pack the playhouse, the production is rendered brilliant by its whole ensemble, bolstered by a number of RSC veterans. Oliver Ford Davies’ Duke of York anguishes over the state of the nation, articulating his inner conflict between royal loyalty and the necessary harms of realpolitik whilst also playing with the verse, and injecting some brilliant humour into the text. Michael Pennington also excels as John of Gaunt, delivering the famed ‘This sceptr’d isle’ speech with suitable pathos.
A hauntingly tragic rendition of Shakespeare’s history performed by an amazing lead and powerful ensemble, Doran’s Richard II has us tremendously excited for the next six years at the RSC.
Screenings of the RSC’s Richard II are currently available in cinemas around the country; more information and locations are available here.