Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1
Me. David Tennant. William Shakespeare. Richard II. Jealous yet?
As with ‘Mojo’, this one was always going to be good. Having seen Tennant fronting the BBC’s ‘Shakespeare Uncovered: Hamlet’ documentary, I was fully aware of his abilities to explore in depth Shakespeare’s most interesting and detailed characters. Richard II is one of these, to say the least.
Whilst his behaviour is often childishly petulant and obstinate, he develops into an extremely sympathetic character as the play goes on. I felt Tennant was very successful in subtly winning over the audience; his speeches when talking of John of Gaunt’s death are horribly cold-hearted: “Now put it, God, in the physician’s mind/ To help him to his grave immediately!” However, as Richard becomes more and more of a pathetic figure, not only forced to give up the position that defined his entire life, seeing his identity melt before him, but also deeply confused that a role he’s been told was God-given (i.e. the Kingship) can be taken away from him all of a sudden.
Really though, Aumerle (Oliver Rix) is the key tragic hero in this production. David Tennant’s performance is excellent, but Rix’s is truly harrowing. Portrayed as a man who must choose between two opposing sides, a bit like Antony, one of the most perfect moments is the silence between the two cousins as it becomes clear Richard must give up his throne. So much is said in this mutual stillness, which is only broken by a kiss. Now, I’m not sure this homosexual element was completely needed, though my mum did suggest the kiss actually showed Richard’s inability to get close to anyone without adding a sexual hint to it, which I think sounds pretty valid!
As in the BBC’s ‘The Hollow Crown’, starring Ben Whishaw, they chose to change the ending, making Aumerle Ricard’s killer, rather than the somewhat less dramatically interesting Sir Pierce of Exton as in the script. Personally I think this was a perfectly acceptable alteration; it, and Bollingbroke’s anger afterwards, really emphasised the impossibility of Aumerle’s situation. My heart broke for him, as well as for Richard, especially when his father turned him in for treason. He just couldn’t do anything right!
Now, the (very few!) problems I had with the production. For a play with one of the great speeches about England…
“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”
…the set was very plain and conjured up none of “this earth”, none of picturesque pastoral countryside and certainly not “this other Eden”. However, they almost made up for this by the absolutely ear-meltingly gorgeous singing, music composed by Paul Englishby and sung by a trio of sopranos.
I thought the casting was very good, though Nigel Lindsay as Bolingbroke seemed a little underwhelming at times; I couldn’t imagine him being a viable option for Kingship, especially against Richard, a man with such presence, a man who invented the word ‘majesty’ in fact!
However, other than these slight flaws, this production was handled expertly. The poetry is some of the most beautiful there is out there, the acting is brilliant, and the real tragedy of the tale, that of Aumerle, is powerfully and heartbreakingly told.
Richard II (RSC at The Barbican) – 4/5 stars