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.
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.
- Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre – theatre review (standard.co.uk)
- Tennant’s Richard II rules at RSC (bbc.co.uk)
- Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- First night: Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (independent.co.uk)
- Richard II – The King with the bored look on his face (lingoservice.wordpress.com)
- Richard II – review (theguardian.com)