Richard II is a play that I am very fond of. Richard became king at the age of ten and the play provides a moving look at what this may do to a person who is forced to grow up only seeing himself through the warped perspective of a world where he is treated as a divinely ordained, all powerful king, while at the same time being forced to rely on others in order to fulfil that role. Richard discovers himself to be a flawed and vulnerable human being too late as the relentless real politik of the usurper Henry Bolingbroke destroys him and the prop of kingship- his only reality- is taken away. He is capricious, needy, childlike, arrogant, artistic, impulsive, petulant, a sensitive and thoughtful man at heart who would have been better suited to a life in the Arts than kingship. He is an easy target for both hangers on who want to take advantage of him and achieve favour and those enemies who are ruthless enough to take him down. This is a story of regime change and the toll it takes on those involved- above all the king himself- and it is told in some of the most beautiful poetry that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a play that can break your heart.
You never hear the part of Richard being talked about as a “mountain” in the way that Hamlet or Lear are but looking back at that list of words I have picked out to describe aspects of his character it probably should be. I have seen some great Richards over the years. David Tennant has some natural advantages for the role. He has the physical presence, a natural elegance and beauty, that any actor playing Richard needs. He has a facility to speak the verse well and a quicksilver mind which makes the speeches easy to understand. Watching him we certainly believe in the less admirable aspects of Richard’s character. He is very good at the public Richard, imperious and spoiled to a fault and particularly good in the deposition scene. This is Richard’s parting shot at Bolingbroke, he is toying with him, making sure that he goes down under protest with all flags flying. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great scenes and he does it proud. What he didn’t quite reach, for me, was the sensitivity and poetry at the heart of Richard, an otherworldly quality which touches the heart. This is a very difficult balance to strike in order to turn the audience’s sympathies around. We should feel as ambivalent as Bolingbroke himself about Richard’s downfall. While we can see that a king who is utterly unsuitable to rule needs to go we also need to feel desperately sorry for him as a man, flawed like all of us, learning what he needs to know too late to allow him to become a wiser, humbler Richard.
Bolingbroke is played with uncompromising toughness by Nigel Lindsay. This is a real bruiser of a man and there is no doubt what he is after. It is only after he is sure of getting it that the doubts which will follow him for the rest of his life begin to grow. This is nicely suggested by the figure of Richard looking down on him once again at the end of the play. just one among many fine directorial touches from Greg Doran.
The real joy of this production for me were three great performances from three experienced Shakespearian actors, Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. You could wait a lifetime to see those three parts played better. The grief and anger of the duchess was visible, real and searing and watching John of Gaunt tear into Richard after giving us the most beautifully spoken and heartfelt manifesto of his reasons for doing it in the this England speech was a very fine sight indeed. I would buy myself another ticket simply to see that again. I also liked Oliver Rix as Aumerle, York’s son. He is a confused young man, blinded by his love for Richard and the performance was very well thought through and strongly played.
This is a very beautiful production to look at, made with enormous attention to detail from traditional old style theatrical magic, gobbos and gels given a new dimension by modern technology. The design by Steven Brimson-Lewis and lighting by Tim Mitchell gives us a shimmering cathedral made from light and curtains of beads, backlit undergrowth under a red moon, a cold blue shadowy prison and a moving platform right across the stage, a great asset for any production of this play, showing off Richard in his pomp giving great flexibility to the cast and director and moving the play along with great speed as a scene is transformed in an instant. It is the kind of setting that Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse deserves.
I would like to end by saying one or two things specific to the live relay. I am getting quite used to them now but this was the first I have seen that almost gave me the sense that I was sitting in the audience at the stunning new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was beautifully produced, pointing us towards key moments and reactions, as well as giving us a sense of the larger picture. I do wish though that the producer of it had remembered that the audience are not necessarily Shakespearean novices who need to be told what the opening scene contains as the lights go down. These live relays sell out weeks in advance and most of us are only there because money and/or time does not allow us to be there in the audience, sitting in the theatre as we would really like to be. Please don’t patronise us. I also wasn’t comfortable seeing two of the actors, Jane Lapotaire and Michael Pennington, interviewed live during the interval. They were charming, insightful and in Jane Lapotaire’s case very moving but it just wasn’t appropriate- even though their parts were over for the evening.