Richard II – RSC at the Barbican

Nine months, nine months I’ve waited to see this play! Booking my front-row tickets back in March it seemed so long to wait. The play opened in Stratford to amazing reviews, it was shown live in cinemas which I had to resist and finally it arrived at the Barbican this week. After so many months of anticipation and near hysterical levels of excitement, could the RSC’s Richard II possibly live up expectation…hell yes!

I’ve been privileged enough to see David Tennant on stage twice before, most recently in Much Ado About Nothing where he displayed a surprising aptitude for slapstick. But his Hamlet, also with Greg Doran directing, was electrifying – a play I’d seen countless times had me on the edge of my seat with a central performance of grief so brilliantly balanced it was at once dark and comedic, menacing and heartbreaking.

Richard II is the story of two Kings, Richard himself and his successor (or usurper) Henry IV, but this production shows them as the two faces of kingship – Richard is regal, godly and majestic, dressed often in pale white and gold, while Henry is thuggish, hard and earthy in his darker reds and browns. They are in some sense one person, two sides of one King. In a particularly striking moment you see Richard descend from above enthroned on a platform, bathed in white light and shining gold. Later, in parallel, we see Henry do the same, and yet despite the trappings of kingship – the crown, sceptre and throne – he seems a parody of the man he replaced, now embroiled and muddied in a more deadly political world. Greg Doran, as with Hamlet, brings a real sense of threat to the direction, building the tension as the action plays out, so that even after nearly 3 hours you’re still captivated and wanting more. With so much happening off-stage and just reported by the character’s Shakespeare can sometimes appear sanitised, but with Doran’s productions you feel a shadow of those events slowly infecting everyone as the play progresses helping to create a fantastic tension and drive.

And so to Tennant….what can I say, it was a performance of real magnificence. His Richard begins stately and in control, his chin raised but using a softly controlled voice to imply a hint of androgyny. Wholly convinced of his divine right to rule and his status as god’s representative, his courtiers obey however strange the decision. Yet by appropriating John of Gaunt’s lands his arrogance blinds his judgement and leads to his undoing, and here Tennant is unsurpassable. One of his great strengths as an actor is being able to convey deep and complex emotions and always suggests great pathos without becoming hammy. He takes an audience with him, and here creates incredible sympathy for Richard; watching him crumble was mesmerising – from the scene on the Welsh beach when he first realises his supporters have deserted him and the Kingdom is lost, to reluctantly and indecisively choosing to hand over his crown – devastating.  Earlier, I used the word privilege in seeing Tennant perform, the word was carefully chosen for a privilege it is.

There are often great theatre performances in London and I’ve been lucky enough to see most of my favourite actors. But sometimes something very very special comes along. Tennant’s Hamlet was one and now his Richard II is a rare chance to see a performance of such majesty that it will be talked about among the great moments of theatre history. Everything about this production shines, the ensemble acting is first class, the stage design is glorious and the direction brilliant – I could write pages more! It was worth every second of that nine month wait, so do whatever it takes – queue for day tickets, scour the country for an RSC-live cinema screening, bribe the Barbican – do whatever you have to do, but SEE THIS PLAY!

Richard II is at the Barbican until 25 January.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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