King Richard II and his cousin the Duke of Aumerle sit on a walkway high above our heads. Their feet dangle and swing, like children. The political machinations of their day drift away as Richard contemplates a life beyond that of a King. We can focus for a moment on the men behind the titles. There’s an intimacy here and pretense seems to dissipate in this conversation. They embrace each other as if this will be their last moment on earth. And suddenly tears began to stream down my face. This has never happened to me before at a Shakespeare play.
It’s a beautifully staged and emotionally fraught scene in Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II. Doran punctuates his staging with the Royal Shakespeare Company with vivid performances, mesmerizing gilded illusions, and some unfortunate heavy-handed operatic voices. It turns out he need not have had the singers emphasize through song what his compelling cast already produced – a sense of fragile humanity and the dramatic consequences of the foolhardy acts of men. It’s a vibrant and stunning production.
Richard II (David Tennant) is often played as a preening boy King, vain and inept. Richard is easily swayed by sycophants whispering in his ear. He’s an ineffectual leader. His divine right to rule is not in question. Until it is. With suspicions of how the Duke of Gloucester died and allegations by Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Jasper Britton) that Thomas Mowbray (Christopher Middleton) had something to do with it, Richard intercedes. Perhaps to protect himself from a viable rival, Richard’s conclusion is to banish Bolingbroke for several years. This breaks the heart of his uncle the Duke of Lancaster (Julian Glover) in the process. Richard then plans to strip Bolingbroke of his inheritance so Richard can use the funds to wage war in Ireland with his cousin the Duke of Aumerle (Sam Marks) by his side. He leaves Aumerle’s father, the Duke of York (Oliver Ford Davies) to manage England while he is in Ireland. York cannot hold off Bolingbroke and quickly relents. When Richard returns from Ireland to England he learns Bolingbroke has returned from banishment with the support of the nobles.
This is where Richard’s true conflict begins. He has no actual power with Bolingbroke controlling the army and the common people turning against him. But he is still technically King. Must he step down? How does one relinquish that which he believes is God-given? Well if you’re Shakespeare’s Richard he gives up in fits and starts, wrestling with his own feelings and thoughts.
David Tennant may be the draw for most of the audience but Tennant’s Richard makes a substantial mark. Tennant manages to be be both the dainty, wisp of a monarch when called for and a querying, solid man of the world as he fights against the circumstances he finds himself in. Remarkably these aspects of his character don’t feel like contradictions in Doran’s production.
Tennant has an inquisitive, probing manner with his speech. He’s sarcastic and biting at times. He weighs Richard’s wants and desires. He toys with the crown, Bolingbroke, and the nobles, not purely out of a sense of play but because he must unwind something that does not naturally become undone. Like a Socratic argument that he’s having with the world, he argues for and against his own interest. He knows what he must do as a man but how he can logically get there in the face of his divine right proves more slippery.
Tennant may start out portraying Richard as a glittering celestial object, but by the end he is broken earthbound man. In this production as he lets go of his gilded cage he becomes more and more wretched. With his long hair and flowing robes there is a more than a touch of the beatified in how Doran stages him.
It’s a physical performance as much as a verbally dexterous one. Doran has him crawl on the ground, curl up into a ball, wrack his own body. Once he is undone as King he’s nearly non-stop in his movement. When he stops moving, it is all over for him.
So much falls to Richard in the play that in other productions it has felt like the rest of the characters aren’t doing much. But here Britton as Bolingbroke feels actively present. Britton engages in an exquisite dance with Tennant as they parry the issues of fealty and betrayal. In these moments where Tennant and Britton face each other while their power struggle continues (Wait which one of us is the King and who is supposed to kneel?) they maintain an active tension–never quite knowing what the other will do. In addition, Oliver Ford Davies amuses as the perturbed York.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design makes terrific use of projections on what can only be described as glittering threads of fabric – imagine the most fine harp strings upon which images of a gothic arches can be projected. The threads move and the projections flicker leaving you to wonder if what you are looking at is real or conjured out of mist. Brimson Lewis illuminates the stage such that suddenly what seemed like a solid black shiny surface is now silver or gold rocks. These optical illusions mirror Richard’s unsteady grasp on his space and delicately illustrate our shaky whereabouts with elegant and mysterious beauty. It all sparkles but none of it is real gold.
Richard II is on until 29th April 2016. Click here for tickets.