[Review] - Richard II, By The Royal Shakespeare Company

Courtesy of the RSC
Honest admission time: I'd never seen a production of Richard II before this. I've read it, to be sure. Seen the monologues performed. But never the entire production. So, really, starting with the RSC is kind of like having your first bite of food come from a Michelin Starred chef. It's starting at the top. And what a top. For the first ever cinematically broadcast production from the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, director Gregory Doran has put on his first of 36 planned performances over six years, from the first folio of Shakepeare's work. And beginning with Richard II, has shown his willingness to experiment with the company, allowed his designers to be bold in their depictions, and elicited a package of performances that impress with their ferocity.

Hit the jump for the brief review, which contains spoilers for a 400 year old play, and a 600 year old king.


Staging a successful Shakespearean play, considering that the words are the foundation of modern English literature, really comes down to three elements: performance, direction and decoration. And no other institution has more experience in those fields than the RSC.

So, performance. Is there any doubt? David Tennant as the titular king brings what director Doran calls an uncontrollably modern interpretation to any role he plays (he's previously had successful turns as both Romeo and Hamlet for the RSC). His Richard is an at first ethereal creature, his voice high, his dress slim, his strangely flowing locks angelic, as befitting a Divine monarch. Tennant plays him in the first part with a disassociation that looks through the others rather than at them. It's only later, when he literally falls to Earth after his return from the Irish campaign, that the roles turns course, desperate and human.

Tennant transitions the king wonderfully, though without ever really abandoning the kingly manner. Even in his imprisonment, he keeps an air about him, a king even at his lowest, despite his abdication. Yet, it's not Tennant that holds the show together. There is no stand out here. It seems that Doran has managed to arrange a true ensemble with this cast, each nearly on par with one another. Despite several of the roles having the potential, there is no showboating among this cast.

Nigel Lindsay as the rebellious Bolingbroke brings stern, unflinching resolve to the role, accentuating the everyman quality of someone who is never truly that. Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York possibly has the most fun, especially when the play gives over to comedy late in act five (special mention must be made of Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York, who comes nearest of anyone to stealing the show). Myself, I found the performances of Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, and Antony Byrne as Mowbray to have most impressed me. Byrne for the biting, tenacious way he dug into the words, a bilious hate seeming genuine in those early moments of the play, so important to set the mood. And Pennington, as befitting the character who gets the best speech in the play, sinks himself with great aplomb into the brief but critical role of the King's uncle.

Direction and design go hand in hand, and Doran has opted from a minimalist, stripped down adaptation. He retains the medieval setting, but the stage is rarely decorated by anything more complex than a throne. Instead, head designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has opted to use brilliant technique of using projections against three staggered curtains of chains, which give the impression of physical sets. So successful is this technique that, until they specifically pointed it out during intermission, I was oblivious. The holographic effect creates all the audience needs to feel present in the setting, and the strength of the performances lead you through the rest.

Doran also opted to use the whole stage, 360 degrees of space, for his performers, allowing them to exist through gangways in the audience. Many times, the actors backs are at the seats, but it never feels restrictive, quiet the opposite, it generates a greater feeling of immersion, as if these characters have a whole and isolated world of their own, rather than performing for anyone. The technique is so successful that, when Northumberland makes his demands of the King at Flint Castle, and Tennant is positioned behind Sean Chapman, both facing the audience, it takes you aback.

The longevity of Shakespeare's plays has everything to do, especially the histories, with the fact that he was writing for a modern audience. By selecting and highlighting the themes that transcend time, and are instrumental to the human condition, the play feels just as relevant today as it would have to an Elizabethan, despite it being about neither of those times. Maybe it was because I've recently rewatched Margin Call, but as I watched, my mind constantly flickered to a modern corporate setting, applying the words to CEOs rather than Kings, and hostile takeovers rather than abdications. The RSC has done a wonderful thing here, now bring on Henry the IV.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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