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A CurtainUp London Review
Tennant's early scenes show King Richard II to still be a boy. It is 1398 and Richard, now 31, has been on the throne since the age of ten on the death of his father, the valiant warrior, Edward the Black Prince. Richard's mother was Joan the Fair Maid of Kent but in his youth, his uncles control his kingship. The uncles are charged with the welfare of the realm. The play opens when one of these uncles, the Duke of Gloucester has been murdered by Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Antony Byrne). Tennant's Richard initially has a high pitched voice, his hair, long red tresses (extensions not a wig), sounds petulant and is surrounded by fops and favourites - a peacock king. But then king isn't an office allocated on merit, or intelligence or wisdom, because in the 1300s, it is a divine election, the King is chosen by God. David Tennant is a beautifully nuanced actor with an individual interpretation and small movements and expression which makes his performance a joy to watch.
The problem for the audience is the sheer size of the Barbican Theatre auditorium which the Royal Shakespeare Company had built to their specification way back, and which they left behind as the London base when they rebuilt the Stratford main theatre as a galleried smaller space. I longed to be closer to Tennant's subtleties of versatile expression. Of course with this play being beamed to cinemas worldwide, the camera will be able to pick up every glance, every emotion as it passes across Tennant's face. Is there a directorial conflict here with many more people watching on a screen as opposed to the theatre audience?
The opening scene in the cathedral has Gloucester's widow (Jane Lapotaire) weeping at her husband's body in the cathedral, a magnificently projected perpendicular arched windowed cloister, in blues and greys and stone. There is music too, sombre and religious. Tennant is the last to arrive on stage, a pale delicate figure like someone out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, compared to the musclemen jousters Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Mowbray. Later there is a backdrop of Richard's personal heraldic emblem, the white hind, a beautiful but hunted animal. Stephen Brimson Lewis' period design allows Richard to look down on his realm from a gallery.
The problem with Richard is that he doesn't have the wisdom to rule justly and he falls out with his remaining uncle counsellors, John of Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and the Duke of York (Oliver Ford Davies, how many times have I seen Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York?) The fight between the Yorks as they rush, one, the father, to get Aumerle their son (Oliver Rix) prosecuted for treason, the other, his mother (Marty Cruikshank) to get him pardoned, is comic relief at the end of Richard II and I don't especially enjoy the comedy but I can see it is well done here. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt speaks the "This England" speech beautifully with some of the most poetic national imagery ever written.
Because Tennant's Richard has never been autocratic so his downfall to prison is less of a personal ordeal than some and through the filth, and in chains, he is supremely eloquent as the real king was reported at the time when visited in Pontefract jail by the chronicler, Adam Usk. Richard's deposition and murder hangs over the reign of Henry IV and his dubious claim to the throne until Richard's body is re-interred by Henry's son, Henry V in Westminster Abbey.
Gregory Doran's production has plenty of space for reflective thought in the context of English history. Shakespeare was writing this play at a time when there was no obvious successor to Elizabeth the Virgin Queen and less than 50 years after his death in 1616, England would once more be in the grips of a civil war. The death of Richard II leads to almost 100 years of civil war, the Wars of the Roses as Yorkists and Lancastrians vie for the throne.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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