Tennant as Richard II – what did I think?

DT RichardRichard II.

Richard II is not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. It’s long, it’s entirely in verse (much of it rhyming couplets, making it difficult to conduct a realistic conversation), the historical background is alien to us and we are plunged right into a dispute that can seem pretty baffling to the uninitiated. Additionally, the protagonist is deeply unlikeable. There is also an almost complete lack of light relief. For these reasons, and no doubt many more, it is rarely performed.

But if you’re going to understand the Histories, it’s essential, because the whole cycle turns on the issue of whether the sacreligious act of deposing an anointed ruler can ever be justified – a question of vital importance to Shakespeare’s audience as the ageing Elizabeth became increasingly paranoid. She was under no illusions. “Know ye not I am Richard II?” she quipped darkly, threatened by the rebellion of Essex and other restless favourites.

So Richard is a very public and political story, and last year’s BBC production with Ben Whishaw in the title role put that across poetically and winningly. His Richard was almost too beautiful to live – a foolish boy-king in his golden pavilion toying with his pet monkey and fondling his flatterers. And when I heard that Tennant was going to take on the role, I wondered if he was already a bit too old. His face seems to have lost some of its youthful smoothness over the last few years, become pinched and a bit gaunt in certain, unflattering lights, though he can still scrub up well when he wants to. But wasn’t he a bit mature for the bratty Richard, I wondered?

Well, I needn’t have worried. Being Tennant, directed by Doran who understands him and knows him inside out, he turned that to his advantage. Clad head to toe in shimmering raiment, nails laquered to match, sporting hair extensions almost to his waist, he gives off the aura of an ageing, slightly dissolute rock star with his best hits behind him. He plays a monarch utterly trapped in his divinely appointed role, who has known nothing else since childhood (the real Richard II was crowned at the age of 10), deeply and desperately unfulfilled, capricious and gripped by the ennui that comes from having everything, yet nothing. Even more remarkably, he conveys a sense that his downfall, though merited politically since he behaves atrociously, exchanges an age of refinement and culture for something less imaginative, more pragmatic and brutal. This production harbours no illusions about medieval chivalry. It is a form of words that plasters crude bullying and jockying for position with a veneer of refinement, and results in as much grief and slaughter as any capricious royal commands. Tennant’s Richard calls off Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s dual at the eleventh hour because, above all, he finds it boring and distasteful.

It had not occurred to me until I saw this production that Richard II is a personal tragedy as well as a public one. It’s personal because Richard doesn’t know who he is. Or rather, he always assumed that “the King” was the only conceivable answer. When that goes, there’s nothing left, and it takes an actor of Tennant’s sensitivity and chilling calibre to let the ghastly fear show in his eyes as, one by one, his certainties are stripped away. He’s never been regarded as a human being, so he’s never learned how to be one (there are obvious parallels with the Doctor here, though his performance never goes near them in any overt way). A particularly touching scene is when the young Aumerle, who is obviously in love with Richard, breaks down in his presence and the ex-King awkwardly takes him in his arms, struggling to locate something close to a genuine emotional response.

In its later stages, Richard’s journey becomes a philosophical quest. Rotting in prison, his layers of royal costume literally stripped from him, chained in a filthy shift, he ponders is fate, trying and failing to make sense of it all:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

Richard’s first steps to self-awareness are snuffed out by his murderers, but in his lines we hear something like an early draft of Hamlet’s interiority.

It would be quite wrong to give all the credit to Tennant for this production, as he would be the first to admit. Another of its unexpected strengths is that the older nobles on the sidelines of the action are fleshed out and made fully human. Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt takes the famous “England” speech and restores its anguish; it is not triumphalism but a lament for a loved native land despoiled by foolish misgovernment. And those who saw Doran’s 2008 Hamlet will recall how ably Tennant was supported by the superb Oliver Ford Davies as Polonious. Here he returns as the King’s ageing uncle York and shows us an old man worn out by the loss of his brothers to internicine fighting, unable to bear the load the inadequate King Richard puts on his shoulders as regent at a time of political turbulence, yet torn apart by inner conflict as he comes to realise that the unthinkable must be done to preserve any semblance of order. In York we have an eloquent defence of the sanctity of kingship, and the lacerating pain of seeing it fail. It’s a stupendous achievement, and a great pleasure to see the dynamic between Davies and Tennant again.

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and David Tennant as Richard II

In short, this production more than delivers. If you are a Tennant fan, you’ll find plenty to absorb you here, but hopefully you will see beyond the charisma to a difficult play done well. You’ll be lucky to get a ticket but do catch the movie showing if you possibly can.

 

Tennant returns to Stratford – and more good news

tennantR2I’m obviously backsliding as a Tennant fan, because the much-rumoured news that he was to play Richard II for the RSC came as a complete surprise to me. After some frankly forgettable movies, it’s the right part for the right man at the right time. If he left it much longer I think he’d find it harder to convey Richard’s physical and mental fragility, although anyone who remembers the Tenth Doctor’s meltdown in The Waters of Mars won’t have many concerns on the latter.
In fact, this announcement is the jewel in the very enticing crown of Doran’s overall vision for the RSC. There’s a real feel of going back to basics, with his commitment to stage the entire canon without repetition over the next five years. I’m pleased that he’s resisting the pull of the GCSE and A-Level set books and backpeddling the ensemble strategy a bit. Celebrity casting has its pitfalls but great actors are great for a reason – they are supremely good at their job. And great actors and celebrities aren’t necessarily synonymous, though in the case of Tennant’s Hamlet the two did coincide. Hopefully the hysteria will be more muted now he’s no longer whizzing about in the TARDIS, which will make the daunting prospect of booking and security management a little easier for the RSC and, presumably, the whole experience less stressful for him.

Also welcome is that Doran has a clear plan for the beautiful Swan theatre. Written on the Heart, a couple of years ago, did show its potential as a more intimate space to reflect on the complexities of the early modern era and its dramatic output. The Hilary Mantel adaptation is a terrific coup and might even generate more buzz than the comparatively little-known and demanding Richard II.

The revival of TOP is further good news for the Stratford economy. Local businesses have had a tough time in recent years, with the main house dark for so long and the future of The Courtyard unresolved. Keeping shops and guest houses open may not be at the top of Doran’s agenda, but the RSC is a big enough local employer to take some responsibility for the community, so this is good news on both aesthetic and economic grounds.

I’m looking forward to many more wonderful theatrical experiences in Stratford over the years to come. For this relief, much thanks, Mr D!

Measure For Measure, RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford

Jamie Ballard as Angelo in Measure For Measure) (picture from thegoodreview.co.uk)

Charles Spencer from the Telegraph must really have it in for the RSC this winter season. He condemns their David Edgar play about the King James Bible, Written on the Heart, as “wordy and hard work,” and takes an almost visceral dislike Roxana Silbert’s production of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s problem comedy of sex and the city. So damning was his verdict on the second that I almost turned in my ticket.

I’m glad I didn’t. It’s important that we support a female director, still a rarity in British theatre, and take her view seriously on this most thought-provoking of plays. M4M features one of his most conflicted and fascinating heroines – Isabella, the novice nun, who values her chastity above her brother’s life when she is sexually propositioned by a corrupt governor, Angelo. It’s a decision that would have made a lot more sense to a Jacobean audience than it does to us. Isabella’s reasoning is simple – Claudio would lose his earthly life, but her eternal soul is at stake; no contest. In a society full of fudge and compromise on all sides, she stands out as one of the few clearly principled characters. The problem is that exactly the same could be said of Angelo, whose refusal to temper justice with mercy puts her in this dreadful position in the first place.

In these post-feminist times it’s not unusual to present Angelo as a woman-hating monster, possibly casting a black actress as Isabella to underline the point. Josette Simon ended up being wrestled to the ground in Hyntner’s 1987 production. But Angelo’s nastiness is equalled and perhaps excelled by that of the Duke, who presents a huge directorial problem by leaving his deputy, clearly in over his head, to organise a social clean-up that he lacks the courage to implement himself, preferring to maintain his popularity by staging his disappearance and then showing up as a friar (a type that would have shrieked duplicity and enabling of licentious behaviour to Shakespeare’s original audience) to interfere with the action, submit Isabella to a horribly cruel deception whilst claiming to help her reprieve her brother and then offer her his hand in marriage in the play’s final moments. Isabella’s silence at this point ranks with Katerina’s last speech in The Taming of The Shrew as a nightmare moment for any modern director.

So, what does Silbert do with all this? Well, she decides not to romanticise the sex industry so there are no tarts with hearts of gold. The pimps and whores are nasty, though entertaining. The guys in the prison look like members of a heavy metal band after a long night, and there is quite a bit of bondage gear  scattered around, although as this rather more positive review points out, that particular theme isn’t followed through as much as some might have hoped. Angelo, a superb performance from Jamie Ballard, is a character whose actions sprang from stress and a deep-seated inability to recognise and comprehend his own emotions. To me, he seemed to exhibit the symptoms of high-level Asperger’s syndrome, not only in his lack of emotional affect but also in his attempt to control complex situations by breaking them down into their component parts and working through them according to an inflexible protocol. This explains his treatment of Mariana, his rejected fiancee. He deserts her because her father’s misfortune prevents him from claiming the pre-arranged dowry, so by Angelo’s remorseless, well-intentioned logic, she no longer ticks all the boxes that add up to marriage. Angelo is clearly unsettled by physical contact; his leather cummerband is worn not as fetish but as protection, and it is Isabella’s innocent placing of her hand on his chest to appeal to his heart that releases his repressed desire for her.

The Duke is a more difficult problem. He doesn’t behave well, and that’s what makes him entertaining. You can either handwave or embrace this unfortunate fact, and Silbert unashamedly chooses the latter, making him into a showman as he produces hidden coins and plot-advancing letters from his sleeves. Here’s a man who has to be the centre of attention, loved and adored by people, with the rictus smile of Tony Blair or David Cameron and the ruthlessness of Simon Cowell. There’s no heavy-handed attempt to make him into a parable of our times; his actions are allowed to speak for themselves, he’s great fun to watch (and knows it) and it’s likely that his torture of Isabella is a deliberate device to make him look all the more bountiful before the (metaphorical) TV cameras when all is resolved. Nobody understood the ambivalence and power of showmanship better than Shakespeare.

Innocence under threat: Jodie McNee as Isabella and Ian Midlane as Elbow in the RSC's Meaure for Measure

Jodie McNee, handed a wonderful part, largely plays it straight with an open face, a modest, old-fashioned frock rather than a wimple and a refreshingly down-to-earth Lancashire accent. Yes, she’s screwed-up, but so is everybody else on stage, some of them in far more dangerous ways. Having attempted to retain her innocence in a murky world, she’s forced to learn the hard way how to function when circumstances thrust her unwillingly into its vortex – she has more in common with Angelo than she knows or would care to acknowledge. It doesn’t justify their bad decisions, but if ever there was a play about human nature in all its complexity and the grinding together of the tectonic plates of principle and pragmatism in urban society, this is it. Like the grit in an oyster (an appropriate aphrodisiac image in a play saturated with sexual and commercial imagery), it continues to disturb and challenge us. The high proportion of young people in the sell-out audience suggest that this production is hitting the right spot.

RSC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The last work of art I watched on the topic of dreams was Inception, so compared to that Midsummer Night’s Dream should be a breeze. A slightly trippy one, admittedly, with strobe lighting, flying couches and multicoloured chairs suspended in mid-air. The programme helpfully pointed out that the process of dreaming often leads to the creative subconscious coming up with solutions to the problems that plague us in daylight. Hence it made sense in artistic as well as practical terms for the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta to be doubled as the feuding Oberon and Titania in the forest.

Theseus is about to wed the Queen of the Amazons, a scene that is generally assumed to be joyful, but in this production she sits on a white leather sofa smoking moodily and looking anything but content. Who can blame her, since her fiancee’s seduction technique includes lines like,

“I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries,”?

Matters deteriorate further when a citizen of Athens appeals to Theseus to read the riot act against his disobedient daughter, who has the temerity to want to marry the wrong man. Hippolyta is so disgusted by Theseus’s mysogenist response that she publicly spits in his face. The aesthetic is an underground car park, bleakly lit, crossed with Avengers’ style costumes – a lot of black boots and white leather. At this stage I wasn’t at all sure I was going to enjoy this production.

But the next sceme brings on the Rude Mechanicals, who give us an hilarious workshop in The Art of Very Coarse Acting. Lovely stage business here, particularly from an incurably pushy Bottom who really does fancy himself as a Great Tragic AC-TOR. And after that we’re in the forest, where Robin Goodfellow is all too willing to stir things up a little on Oberon’s behalf. He’s a mischievous spirit, after all, and dream-Theseus does have a few character parallels to day-Theseus, expressed mainly through his desire to win a bitter custody battle for Titania’s adopted son.

The new RSC theatre is growing on me now. Glorious things were done with the lighting throughout the forest scenes, creating a truly magical dramatic world where you felt anything could happen. Through this, the bickering quartet of lovers that I vaguely remember from school, Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia, become increasingly dishevelled and bewildered, culminating in the best cat fight in all Shakespeare when Helena (a brilliantly funny performance from Lucy Briggs-Owen) becomes convinced that everyone is ganging up on her, while Hermia (a gamine Matti Houghton) is rightly indignant that Lysander, under the influence of mistaken identity and a magic potion, has suddenly transferred his affections from her to Helena. It’s a delicious four-hander and went down a storm with the audience. Meanwhile, Titania’s infatuation with Bottom is both touching and hilarious.

In the final act, a beautifully realised dawn brings puzzled responses from everyone, wondering what the hell all that was about? As with other Shakespearian comedies, the final nuptials don’t quite resolve all the conflicts that have built up but another hilarious scene as the Mechanicals perform their show sets the seal on a delightfully entertaining evening.

Review: Daily Telegraph

In Belmont is a Barbie Doll

I’m back from Stratford, and my first production at the new RSC Theatre, where I managed to break a seat. It literally fell apart in my hand as I tried to push it up to let people get past me. I was whisked away into a very expensive stalls seat before I could manage to tweet about it! Not that I would have done – but the RSC didn’t know that.

To be honest, I’m a bit meh about the new theatre. It was done on the cheap, and it shows. There aren’t enough loos, and the seating is flimsy, uncomfortable and unsuitable for anyone over a size 20 – and believe me there are a lot of people who go to the RST who’d fit that description, and that number is likely to rise in the future. Worst of all, you have to pay nearly £50 (on a Saturday evening, at least) to get a seat where you really feel part of the action and can see everything significant that’s going on.

The RSC is our national artistic place of pilgrimage, and I feel genuinely saddened that the remodellers didn’t do a better job. Okay, so they put up a swanky tower, but it’s a safe swanky tower – we aren’t talking the Guggenheim or Pompideau Centre here, and I wish they’d either gone for something with that degree of boldness and flair, or done a good job restoring what they already had.

I saw The Merchant of Venice, an interesting production that substitutes Vegas for Venice, dollars for ducets and (I kid you not) Elvis for Launcelot Gobbo. The Elvis impression was actually very good. The first half is all fruit machines and television game shows, blackjack and crap. I see what they were going for with Portia – they make her into a Southern Barbie doll and the caskets rigmarole becomes a game show called Destiny. And then, when she gets the man she wants, it turns out she’s been dumbing down, and she takes off the wig and the kitten heels because she thinks she’s found someone who’ll appreciate her for herself. It turns out she’s mistaken by the end, and the wig goes back on.

It’s an astonishingly cynical play and yet it contains some of Shakespeare’s most sublime romantic poetry (I’m thinking of “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank“). That glorious scene, which equals and maybe even surpasses the R&J balcony scene in my estimation as the most romantic in Shakespeare, is actually sandwished between a hideously cruel and disturbing trial scene ending with Shylock’s total humiliation and forced conversion, and a blazing four-handed row because the women find out the men have given away the tokens of love they swore to keep for ever. It’s almost as if Shakespeare is going out of his way to be audacious and prove that he has the genius with words to do absolutely anything:

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

(Anybody else remember David Tennant fixing his stare on the audience a few lines later and saying, “Am I a coward?”)

It sounds very odd, but the RSC did the whole Moonlit Belmont scene, complete with its discussion of sweet music, over a soft background of Elvis singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the wall between high and low culture just came crashing down. Shakespeare was doing the same as the King, he was lulling us into the illusion of a happy ending by using every device in his artistic armoury. He was to words what Murray Gold is to music.

Anyway, back to The Merchant. I don’t think it quite worked, though it got very much better in the second half and they were brave to tackle such a problematic play. I liked the way that they got it clearly across that it’s his daughter’s treachery that breaks Shylock and drives him to his revenge against Antonio. That’s another awkward thing about the final scene, and Jessica’s a thankless part, but here we saw her collapse inside when she was given the triumphant news of her father’s fate – she knows what she’s done and she’ll never live comfortably with herself afterwards, and I think that’s right. But (correct me by all means if I am wrong) I had real problems visualising Las Vegas as an anti-Semitic society, and that was something even Patrick Stewart’s performance didn’t overcome. I thought he was very much better as Claudius back in 2008, probably because that production had a much tighter ideological focus than this one.