Greg Doran has turned to illuminated manuscripts and mediaeval images to dress his new production of Richard II within a modern, clean design so that the visual imagery of the evening matches text and creates context. He has, as always, turned his group of actors into an ensemble working with and off each other within a beautifully poised and controlled production. And, as always with Doran, the language is delivered impeccably—anyone can understand what is being said even if they are usually terrified of listening to Shakespeare. Last (but definitely not least) he has devised marvellous stage business to point up and clarify the text at every step.
The opening scene, for instance, is played literally over the dead body of the Duke of Gloucester. The old Duchess enters even before the play starts, led by a page, and she kneels over the bier to mourn and pray while an angelic choir of three maidens sings mediaeval-inspired hymns. When the tale of the Duke’s recent murder and the allegations and counter-allegations about who was responsible are told, this whole strand about the fight between Bolingbroke and Mowbray that implicates Richard himself, and is the catalyst of Richard’s ultimate downfall, is urgent and lucid, conveyed to the audience with complete transparency. This is merely one detail in a production where the layers of visual and verbal presentation continuously act together to integrate and propel the story.
At the centre of this production is the startlingly edgy portrayal of Richard II in his last year by David Tennant. Starting as an effeminate, self-centered, and waspish man (who turns up for a funeral in white robes), concerned to be stylish, somewhat foppish, a bit of a show-off fascinated by his own ability to play-act for his favorites, Richard is surrounded by courtiers, with whom he’s constantly conferring in whispers and giggles, from whom he seems to need to take his decisions. The audience wathes as he mistakenly and almost casually over-reaches his authority, betrays his family and his people, and then turns, step-by-step into a genuine Christian martyr. Efectively, Doran is emphasizing the intrpretation of Richard II as a Passion Play. The flowing hair of the fop in the firts scene turns into the long hair of the Christ-figure that we see in many mediaeval portraits of Jesus.
The production provokes a complexity of feelings for Richard: horror at his silliness early on, great pathos and strong sympathy as he learns what he has done and cannot undo, who he is, and how much he was loved for his position and not his real self. The imagery of royalty and the imagery of the martyrdom adhere to him throughout.
And as his power declines and finally falls away from him, this Richard grows constantly in stature and becomes a frail, brave and heroically open-eyed figure. But this is not the whole story or point of the evening. Even when Richard is not onstage, we are completely riveted by what is happening to the other characters, while we wait for him to reappear. (This production presents the play complete.)
The play is strongly cast throughout, with Jane Lapotaire memorable as the touching and troubling Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene; Michael Pennington as a compelling John of Gaunt. The Queen, played by Emma Hamilton, and her ladies, are present, as they would have been, even in scenes where they are relegated to silence. It makes the meeting between Richard and his wife at the end all the more touching. And in the last moments for Richard, Elliot Barnes-Worrell is striking as the groom.
Nigel Lindsay as a threatening, self-aware and powerful Bolingbroke conveys a shrewd sense of knowing how far he can push his followers and which of them he can actually trust. Oliver Ford Davies is the conflicted and suffering Duke of York, Marty Cruickshank is York’s son-protecting wife, and Oliver Rix stands out as a vividly impressive Aumerle, who’s interpreted, in this production, as turning into a Judas figure under the pressures of events. He even is given the Judas kiss by Richard, though if you are seeing this production for the first time, you won’t understand the point of this kiss, perhaps, until the final curtain.
There are some fascinating readings of the text; all the set pieces and poetry are delivered with insight and as if newly devised, everything comes across as fresh. The readings are consistent with the characterizations yet as brilliantly theatrical as they would be in a court where image and self-presentation are so important. But there is a surprise at the end for those who know the text: Sir Piers Exton’s part, that of the actual historic murderer of Richard, is replaced by Aumerle. This is a debatable but fascinating gloss highlighting an important aspect of the story.
Ultimately, during the curtain calls, while the actors are enthusiastically cheered by the audience along with the musicians (who, throughout, provide wonderful support to the action with the score by Paul Englishby), this is another triumph for Gregory Doran. The lyricism, the poetry, and the tragedy are all conveyed with great precision; the play is paced perfectly; and the production brings out the wit and humour of some parts of the text that are often forgotten, especially in Richard’s early posturings and self-satisfaction and in the scene between the York family and Bolingbroke about Aumerle’s potential treason. Doran manages to elicit from his company the balance between sheer theatricality of a high order and a truly intellectual response to the text.
This is the RSC at its finest, giving a compelling and totally fascinating reading to a text by Shakespeare that, as you watch it, is always completely convincing and thought-provoking.
Doran is following Richard II next spring with his new productions of Henry IV, Parts I and II. He plans to build and present the entire cycle of the Shakespeare history plays of the Hundred Years War over the next few years. Like Wagner’s mighty and eternal Ring, definitely worth waiting for.
Richard II plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon- Avon in the UK until 16 November. It then transfers to the Barbican Theatre in London from 9 December to 25 January, returning the RSC to their old London home for the first time in years,. The play will be broadcast worldwide in cinemas (in HD) on 13 November.