Elizabeth I once famously said of Shakespeare’s play, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” I doubt that even Shakespeare would have dared deliver as unflattering a portrait of a monarch as RSC’s current production. It was with some scepticism that I approached this particular casting; David Tennant, though clearly a charismatic performer, has never seemed to me to have the traditional stature or presence of a king. Neither, the contention appears to be, did Richard II. Tennant’s Richard is unashamedly effeminate, weak, frivolous and flippant.
His performance is refreshingly humorous, as is the treatment of the text as a whole. Director Gregory Doran has not missed a single instance of wordplay and the production even adds a few jokes of its own, all clearly communicated to the audience through powerful performance, pauses or convenient stage business. Heavy symbolism, intricacies of plot and suggestive undertone are all likewise clear, but what one gains in clarity is lost in subtlety and equivocation.
The play begins with what is almost an added scene: that of the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) grieving her late husband. This beginning, along with the presence of the coffin for much of the first half, is a powerful illustration of what has come before, the position of the play’s narrative within a grander historical narrative. However, it is nevertheless a rather awkward, drawn out preamble which removes some of the urgency and conflict of the first scene: a dispute between two noblemen and the challenge to a duel, each accusing the other of treason. The men display their passion for the King and the realm in the public forum of the court in much the same way as the actors do for us. Indeed there is something overly demonstrative, even histrionic, about much of the emotional performance in this play, which, though impressive, sits awkwardly with the dignity of the text.
Characters are strong: each has a distinct voice and style of delivery. Of particular note is Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. Like his character, his performance is measured, diplomatic and extremely successful. However, for the most part, along with the excessive wordplay, amounting occasionally to what could be termed a ‘cheap gag’, the language itself, in all its gravity and complexity, takes a back seat. This is a particular shame in a play which is in many ways about language, its dangers, its limitations, its powers. Read on one level, there is even perhaps a rather buried comment on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ type of masculinity, and what behaviour befits a king, or a man. But there isn’t time to pick at that particular thread.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set is capable of moments of transcendent beauty – instant 3D projections of a cathedral interior, golden strands surrounding the king like heavenly light – but its stark, futuristic minimalism dwarfed the actors, and lent their words a hollow, impotent quality.
Whilst Richard II, like a great deal of Shakespeare’s heroes (or antiheroes), could have benefited from a great deal more decisiveness and action, this production needed a measure of restraint. It was an unquestionably enjoyable, but numerously and fundamentally flawed production.
Richard II is playing Barbican until the 25th January 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website.