REVIEW: Richard II Starring David Tennant - A Stunning Return To Stratford-upon-Avon

Gregory Doran’s much anticipated staging of Richard II opened last night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The production also marked the return to Stratford of David Tennant, taking the title role in his first collaboration with Doran since Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost (2008). Expectation has been high since the announcement of the play in January; those expectations have indeed been met and the outcome is stunning.

David Tennant, it must be said, is superb in one of Shakepeare’s most challenging roles, giving the misunderstood, self-absorbed and unlikeable king both pathos and a wry humour. His Richard is a lofty creature, a spoilt child in the body of a man, vain, haughty, capricious and selfish. Tennant floats around the stage, an androgynous figure clad in flowing robes with his lengthy locks cascading as, with head held back, sneering down his nose, he makes decisions seemingly on a whim. Yet the power of David Tennant is that we can go from recoiling in horror from Richard at his mistreatment of the dying Gaunt to, just a few scenes later, choking with emotion along with him as he realises that he has taken his divine right to kingship for granted and that his power is now slipping from his grasp. The turning point in our feelings towards Richard must be the point at which he learns of the fate of Bushey and Green: the numbing shock and horror is clear on Tennant’s face and the emotional charge runs on through to a poignant ‘death of kings’ speech. Tennant captures the mercurial quality of the king’s character with ease and his deep understanding of the text shines through as he draws subtle meaning from the words and brings what could be stilted verse to sparkling life.

However, it’s not all for David Tennant to carry the weight of the complex narrative and thankfully there is not a weak member of the cast. Nigel Lindsay is perfect as a commanding Bolingbroke: even in the early scenes it is possible to see the king that this nobleman and warrior will soon become. Michael Pennington plays John of Gaunt with a fierce dignity, railing against injustices and standing up for what he holds dear right to his dying breath. Oliver Ford Davies gives an astounding performance as the Duke of York, an honourable, traditional man who finds himself suddenly encumbered with the great burden of governing a fractured nation. He is torn and bewildered as he struggles to reconcile his obedience to his king with what he realises to be the ethical course of action.

Richard II is not a play known for its wealth of strong female roles. Emma Hamilton finds in the role of the Queen a sense of loyalty and love, even though that love might be unrequited. Her performance is bookended by those of two older women. Jane Lapotaire makes an explosive return to the RSC in her single scene as the grief-wracked Duchess of Gloucester, while Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York wrings humour out of what could be a grim situation as she pleads for the life of her son, Aumerle.

Oliver Rix also has to be commended for his loyal and emotional Aumerle. Richard’s gentler moments are shared with his kinsman, and as Richard’s fall becomes unavoidable, the young man struggles to accept what his king has already understood. Their obvious tenderness is overplayed by neither Rix nor Tennant.

The open space of the theatre lends itself to a stark yet atmospheric set. Greg Doran spoke during development of the verticality that he perceived in the play and through the minimalist designs of Stephen Brimson Lewis he makes the most of the building’s height, from upper galleries to the understage and including a mechanical gangway from which the King distances himself from his subjects. Ironically as Richard falls he becomes less cruel and feckless and more humble and human and almost likeable. There are distinct parallels, certainly suggested by his appearance, with a Christ-like figure on the road to crucifixion. Doran has given the climax of the drama his own sharp twist, which is signposted by an ambiguous moment: a genuine display of love which is equally a betrayal by a Judas figure.

The production is staged in traditional dress. However, it is notable that the themes of political wastefulness, ambition, greed and backstabbing and general public dissatisfaction remain as relevant now as they were when it was originally performed. Our public figures, the great and the good, are never more than a few errors in judgement away from falling from grace and there is always someone waiting in the wings to take their place. David Tennant has achieved the task here of ensuring that his fallen king is neither hated nor mocked but instead has the ready sympathy of the audience. And he has done so with consummate ease.

Richard II is in residence at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 16th November 2013. It transfers to the Barbican in London on 9th December where it plays until 25th January 2014. Both runs are currently sold out but returns are available: call the RSC on 0844 800 1110 to check availability