Tuesday, 29 October 2013

David Tennant in Richard II

Also on my travels, I dropped in at Stratford upon Avon to see the latest RSC production of Richard II starring David Tennant.  

Here's sunny Stratford as the sun sets, just before going along to the theatre.

Now, I'd not been to the new theatre in Stratford (only the Courtyard), so that was a treat in itself, plus I'd got tickets sitting right by the stage (being a card-carrying RSC member).

I've seen David Tennant before, in Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost, and Much Ado About Nothing (twice, with Catherine Tate), and he's a very charismatic performer. So I was really looking forward to this Gregory Doran production, even though Richard II isn't a text I've looked at in 30 years, never mind seen a production of.

The theatre itself is big, and yet manages to be intimate and immersive. The set is simple, stark, and yet dazzlingly majestic from the moment Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester slowly enters to drape herself like a black flag over the coffin of her husband, to the accompaniment of a heavenly choir and celestial trumpeters who are somewhere above our heads.

It's a breathtaking set, sometimes forest, sometimes cathedral, with mechanics that that are quite astonishing, from descending walkways to the massive maw of a trap door which opens at the end like the aircraft-carrier gate of hell itself, revealing the incarcerated king.  

It's like medieval steam-punk.

And there's a lot of flying spittle which catches the lights as it rains down - whenever the characters speak, they force out the verse (and it's a play written almost entirely in verse) with such energy that the stage floor must be awash with spit.

David Tennant has a rather unusual androgenous appearance.  You know he's a man, but he looks very feminine, right down to his gold nail varnish.  This very obvious duality (because he looks so very different to anyone else on stage) makes plain the duality at the heart of his character, that of the body natural and the body politic of the medieval king.  

Milton Keynes Citizen

He has long flowing hair, which had been brushed out just prior to going on stage in the first act, and shed tufts across the stage.  It's not a wig, as it has to support the heavy crown, and he runs his hands through it quite a bit, so I reckoned it must be extensions.  

Anyway, the effect is one of unsettling ambiguity - sexual ambiguity, someone who mesmerises and inspires loyalty in both men and women, and who absolutely embodies the concept of the Divine Right of Kings by looking like Christ himself with his flowing white robes.  However, this king is very obviously mortal, being greedy, self-interested and vain, a king who is ultimately worthy of deposing.  The set may initially be black and white, but life isn't black and white.  It's a whole load of grey. 

I can't tell you about the plot.  Any aspect of plot in a film or play tends to pass me by pretty much entirely. Stuff happens.  I can, however, tell you all about the language and the emotion of the performance.

There are some perfectly competent performances - Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York isn't my favourite actor, and Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt is workmanlike enough.  However, they still manage to take the verse and make it sound meaningful (and, according to the ladies in the queue in the toilets at the interval, the whole cast speak their lines beautifully clearly.).  

The characters talk of living in a world where life is unpredictable and brutal, and yet also lyrically beautiful, rooted in the very earth upon which they live.  You get the sense that Shakespeare's world was one where you were inextricably linked to the gaia-like earth and at the mercy of all its moods and seasons.  Nature was this huge, unordered force around you, and you were doing your best to create order and control over your own very small world, like a little island at the centre of a tumultuous sea.

This, then is play about the intersection between the man-made Court, with the King chosen by God, who at points in the play descends from above on his throne; and the disordered mystical forces of the nature world where Richard eventually descends, literally and metaphorically, to his death.  Order and disorder meet and mingle like opposing tides. 

(There are certain resonances with the imagery of A Midsummer Night's Dream (written around the same time, 1595), and the idea of the ordered courtly world, and the anarchic natural world which surrounds it. )

David Tennant, to a certain extent, always has the character of David Tennant bubbling out of whatever character he's playing, but I guess that's the same with all great actors.  That's what the audience is going to see, after all.  He's even wearing the amber ring of Ian Richardson (the other great Scottish Richard II) on his right hand throughout the production, so there's an awareness of his own place in the RSC pantheon.


Here, DT is all whippet energy and cunning, vanity and sensuality, divinity and mortality, strength and fragility, all-powerful and vulnerable, male and female, gold finger nails and bare feet.  He can pour out the 400-year-old words in a passionate tumult as if he's just thought of them himself, or fill the theatre with a great roar of silence, and Mr Tennant certainly knows how to hold the audience with a silent pause. He can fill a theatre with a silence that everyone is straining to hear.

 Milton Keynes Citizen

In fact, such was the palpable tension in the theatre on the night I was there, that when Richard was stabbed, people actually gasped in shock.  Which isn't bad for a 400 year old play.

This, then is an astonishing theatrical spectacle, resonant and revealing.  It shows that you don't have to do something uber-trendy with a Shakespeare play, like set it in space or underwater, in order to make it relevant.  Shakespeare will always be relevant because he writes about human beings, and what it means to be human, even when that human being is a King.


  1. What a well written, well thought out review. You might say you can't tell us about the plot, but what you did tell us about was the heart and soul of a fascinating Shakespeare play - fascinating perhaps more because of the characters than the plot. Bravo!

    1. Thank you, that's very kind indeed. I'm glad you appreciate it.

  2. Love your description of the play! My mom and I saw Richard II in London in early January, and we loved it! It was the reason for our trip to London (we live about 2 hours east of Chicago), and the first time I've seen David Tennant onstage. We had to deal with a blizzard which cut 3 days off our trip, delayed flights, and arrived only hours before the play began. It was worth every moment of the stress we endured to get there :)

  3. Thank you so much for your kind comments Carolyn. I'm pleased to hear you and your mum enjoyed the play after all the problems in getting there!! Sounds like quite an epic journey.

    Hope you had a good seat to see Mr Tennant in action. He's such a charismatic performer, and his energy just seems to drive whatever play he is in. He gives the characters he plays such an emotional depth, that you really care about them as they seem so real.

    Hope you get a chance to see him on stage again!