REVIEW: Am I Not King? - David Tennant Returns As Richard II

David Tennant made a much anticipated return to the Barbican stage in the title role of Richard II earlier this month. The 2013-4 production has been revived as one quarter of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ambitious tetralogy, King & Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle Of Kings, which places the play at the head of a sequence to be followed by Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V.

David appears to be relishing the return and has built upon his depiction of the ruler, at once selfish and tyrannical, irresponsible, capricious and yet brittle and insecure, continuing to experiment with delivery and his interactions with his co-stars. He dominates the stage from his entrance, so different from the rest of the court with his ornate flowing gowns and golden flowing locks (a wig this time rather than the hair extensions), the King’s core notion that he is God’s own representative rendering him, in his own opinion, invincible and unchallengeable. David’s art is most evident in his delivery: he plays with Shakespeare’s words, toying with the structure, adding pauses and beats so he utters the 400-year old verse in a way that feels natural and familiar and, most of all, understandable to a 21st Century audience. His Richard is, even under huge duress, sharp and quick-witted, and even funny. He may not be the most likeable character in the play but he is the most magnetic and the most intelligent; however as his power declines his humanity grows. Therefore, David dominates the deposition scene as Richard runs rings around the new court, his acceptance of defeat edged with just the right amount of pride and mockery. His tragedy is that by the time he becomes the character that elicits the most sympathy, his life is over.

Just short of two years have passed since the original staging closed in late January 2014, and it is inevitable that there have been some cast changes. Most significantly, perhaps, is that Jasper Britton steps into the role of Bolingbroke in place of Nigel Lindsay. The change obviously cements the play to the ensuing productions in the cycle as Britton carries on the role as Henry IV through to the next two plays. His Bolingbroke is both physically and emotionally different to his predecessor. Lindsay was bullish and aggressive, and there was always the sense of him as the bigger boy snatching the crown from his spoiled brat cousin. Britton is more cerebral and wily: from the moment that Richard fails to resolve the conflict with Mowbray at Gloucester’s funeral it’s clear that Bolingbroke has a germ of an idea in his mind and his banishment is the catalyst that will fracture Richard’s regime and culminate in his downfall and death.

Julian Glover takes over as John of Gaunt, and his twin griefs at his son’s banishment and his brother Gloucester’s death are perceptively handled; his delivery of ‘This England’ is more sadly nostalgic than angry and frustrated. Matthew Needham plays the role of Harry Percy with a laddish swagger – again it is a part that continues through to the next play in the cycle, with some twists in fortune ahead for Percy and his father Northumberland (Sean Chapman). Sam Marks, who put in a notable performance as Bushy in the 2013 version, steps into the part of Aumerle. He is the one character who gives Richard anything like a normal human relationship and Sam’s interactions with David Tennant are sensitive and believable.

Female roles in Richard II are scant and fairly brief, but that does not mean that the production lacks performances that shine. Bookended by brief but solid performances from Jane Lapotaire and Sarah Parks as the Duchesses of Gloucester and York, Leigh Quinn enters the company as Richard’s Queen. Mostly sidelined by Richard’s favourite companions, she comes into her own in her final scene with her King where her tender love and concern for her husband is certainly moving.

It’s good to see other familiar faces back in their old roles alongside Sean Chapman and Jane Lapotaire – Oliver Ford Davies and Simon Thorp among them. For those who saw the play in its original run, the live choral soundtrack by Paul Englishby feels like an old friend, as does the ethereal stage design by Stephen Brimson Lewis.

Only one UK performance of Richard II remains now, on Friday 22nd January. However in a few months the company will be transferring the whole cycle across the Atlantic to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Those who have managed to snatch themselves tickets should feel very fortunate at the prospect of seeing what will be remembered as a classic production of Shakespeare’s most emotional and tragic historical play.  

Click here to read about the King & Country New York transfer.