Richard II remains a problem play, not in the sense often attached to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida for the moral ambiguities of their endings. Rather that in the character of Richard – the weak 14th century English king, swayed by favourites who allowed himself to be deposed – Shakespeare wrote some of his most poetic and fascinating psychological insights into kingship and collapse of fortunes. He’s a `problem’ character alright.
So how to present him in this day and age? Over a decade ago, the much missed director, Steve Pimlott with Sam West as Richard saw the play very much as a way of commenting on our own conflicted contemporary attitudes to `Englishness’. West’s was a rivetingly intelligent reading whose burgeoning humanity was intensely moving. West gave us a flawed monarch who was both wise and weak, sardonic and lyrical, now regal, now everyman. Lamenting his downfall with a philosopher’s obsession, he was indeed a young man who `wasted time and whom time now wastes’.
Greg Doran’s already much acclaimed RSC Stratford production, now transferred to the Barbican, starring David Tennant as Richard takes a wholly different approach.
Doran’s production, cleverly and magnificently set by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis as if within the vaunting ceiling of Westminster Abbey (conjured through a thin gauze back projection) doesn’t so comment on English nationalism as show it.
Presentation in this Richard and with this Richard is everything. With the temperament of the quintessential narcissist and at the same time, of the monarch who needs to create awe and authority – a fact Elizabeth I grasped as much our present day Windsors who have always shown a keen appreciation of the importance of presentation – Richard performs, all the time.
And in Tennant’s portrayal, this performer, with long flowing locks, is one, intriguingly, whose immaturity and arrogance (Richard, historically, became king at the age of 10!) mark him out early on as irritatingly `detached’ from the common herd – one part petulant drag queen, one part fully paid up member of the `divine right of kings’ ethos. There is one wonderful moment as his state begins to crumble under the battering ram attack of Nigel Lindsay’s blunt bruising Bolingbroke when Doran situates Tennant atop a steel gantry, clad from top to toe like the `golden phaeton’ referred to in the text. He glistens, he glitters, he strikes an attitude commanding, at the very least, admiration. Yet within a minute or two, he has capitulated. And very soon after begins the descent into self pity, renunciation of crown and ultimately death.
Doran’s production therefore has its stellar moments, not just in its over-arching setting but its beautiful medieval chants sung live by three sopranos. Oliver Ford Davies as the old Duke of York, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, all add substantial weight. Good, too, to see smaller roles – a groom, a gardener – given attention and played with due detail.
Tennant’s performance is another matter. Bravely, he takes an alternate route to the usual approach to Richard. His performance is resolutely anti-romantic, refusing to pander to the role’s usual sympathies, constantly working against it with irony or cool detachment. There is something incredibly uncomfortable about this performance, as though either performer – or character – were deeply unhappy with the role they’ve been assigned. Hard really to feel this Richard’s humanity coming through, learning any particular lessons or testing the limits of his own brain through incarceration. Perhaps all part of the director’s intention. Nor does Doran dwell much on the extraordinary, Beckettian like word-play Shakespeare invents for Richard’s physical descent from battlement to ground level and from kingship to commoner.
None of which criticism will mean much to the already sold out crowds and standing ovations.
A late postscript. Having recently seen the National Theatre’s outstanding revival of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II with John Heffernan following a similar trajectory being driven to deposition and death by the perception of being led astray by a small circle of favourites, you can’t help but feel Marlowe’s is the more thrilling play, his language and arguments the more provocative and radical. It should get revived more often!