And so Gregory Doran’s reign as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company begins. The first production in his quest to stage every Shakespeare play on the RSC’s main stage is the heavily publicised and already sold-out Richard II, with David Tennant taking on the role of the titular king. To my mind, it’s one of the Bard’s most strikingly political works, offering up a critique of monarchy and its effect on land. Doran’s production, however, comes across not as the spark which sets off decades of conflict but a succession of petty squabbles with little consequence. It’s a well-observed and nuanced piece of work, demonstrating some staggering moments of humanity, but sometimes feels – well – a bit bland.
An ethereal, confusing sight is created by Stephen Brimson Lewis upon entering the theatre; from behind the RST’s proscenium arch hang gilded poles adorned by stringed, beaded curtains and lit by pillar-style gobos, creating an illusion of mirrors and fragments. In the centre of the black raked stage is a draped coffin, acting as an ominous memory of what has come before. It’s a disconcerting image, but gives an idea of this production’s focus on transience and weak bonds, where loyalties and ideals can be changed in an instant like the backdrop on which they are placed.
Admittedly, this does lead to some beautiful moments. David Tennant’s Richard begins as a tight-lipped, quiet monarch but slowly grows into the witty, crazed neuroticism we expect from him, demanding his followers to “sit upon the ground” before launching into his rumination of power. This speech is made all the more powerful when we see him later in the Tower (a pit in the stage), alone and broken, delivering the famous soliloquy with a considered anguish. So, too, do we get a gorgeously affective moment as Oliver Ford Davies’ bumbling Duke of York denounces his son Aumerle (Oliver Rix) before being chastened by his wife (Marty Cruickshank). It comes across as a brutally human scene, where the stakes are as high as they can get and the outcome matters.
Which is more than can be said of the rest of the production, whose focus on “telling stories” or “tales” somehow manages to weigh down the soaring poetry and searing political insight of Shakespeare’s play by failing to make bold decisions. Instead, we get an almost politically whitewashed version of the play which lacks pace, excitement and – perhaps most importantly – drama. Though the text itself creates conflict as Mowbray and Bolingbroke chuck down their gages in the opening scene, Doran’s production doesn’t really get going until just before the interval, as the institution of monarchy is thrown into disarray with Richard’s abdication, standing on a bridge with only Aumerle for company.
Tim Mitchell’s semi-epic lighting injects some mystery into proceedings, and does a masterful job of both opening up and closing down space, but though Paul Englishby’s choral, regal music is created with class, I wonder whether it’s use in the production is somewhat manipulative and excessive. The same can be said of some performances; Jane Lapatoire and Michael Pennington have a sizzling chemistry early in the play, but sometimes go a little too far as emotions run high. Instead, it is Nigel Lindsay and Antony Byrne as Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray who impress most alongside Tennant’s captivating king, offering up a sumptuously clear reading of Shakespeare’s verse and finding something fascinating in the pair’s blokeish masculinity.
I don’t deny that Richard II demonstrates a solid start to Doran’s tenure, but it plays it too safe to be remarkable. We get a well-painted picture of a slightly lost, slightly flimsy world ruled over by selfish egos who have no understanding of the world around them. But the production never really blows open the play, and by placing Richard in white against the usurper’s darker tones it simplifies Shakespeare’s message rather than complicating it. Instead of deconstructing those famous speeches, it reveres them. And as Richard learned all too soon, reverence can only lead to problems further down the road.