At the start of a new year it’s traditional to look to the future, to think about self-improvement, make resolutions and generally hope for better things. It will seem somewhat strange then that my first theatrical review of 2016 is looking back to a production that first took place over two years ago. The re-arrival of David Tennant and the RSC’s 2013 version of Richard II is something of a special event, not only as part of a complete cycle of Shakespeare’s histories currently in performance taking audiences from said Richard to Henry V, but is an unusual thing in theatre- a repeat. Now, we are used to seeing transfers which means you can see the same play from somewhere like The Young Vic, National Theatre or Royal Court or beyond in a bone fide West End theatre a few weeks or months later. There are tours too, that begin and end in London which allow you to see the same show several months later, and revivals occur all the time with new casts, directors and designs that give a new twist to a well-worn classic, but to take a play that completed its entire run years ago and reconvene many of the original cast within the exact same production values is a rare thing indeed.
One of the joys and frustrations of theatre is that it only exists for a moment before it’s gone, even the National Theatre Live people have quite sensibly refused to release their cinema recordings on DVD or download to preserve that ‘one night only’ feel. But imagine if you could do this all the time, what productions would you replicate in their entirety, just to see them again one more time? Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan in the 2001 production of Private Lives would be high on my list, Tennant’s Hamlet of course and I could easily see the recent A View from the Bridge countless times. You could also pick something you missed out on first time around, that hot ticket that everyone got but you, or even something from long ago that wistful theatre critics remember fondly. What the RSC is doing at the Barbican however is far more practical, by giving proper context to a particular cycle of plays it will help the audience understand the meaning and consequences of that period of history, and offer an almost unique rep season as a fitting start to this 400th anniversary year.
Undoubtedly, this production of Richard II was one of the best things I’d ever seen in a theatre and its reprise certainly lives up to my memory of it. There have been just enough changes to keep it fresh however and although Tennant returns to his original role, as does Oliver Ford Davis as the Duke of York, Jane Lapotaire remains the Duchess of Gloucester but Sam Marks is promoted from Bushy to the Duke of Aumerle. New members include Leigh Quinn who replaces Emma Hamilton as the Queen, Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt has become Julian Glover, while chief agitator Bolingbroke sees Nigel Lindsay morph into Jasper Britton. Design, direction and costumes are pretty much the same although two scenes configure slightly differently to how I remember them – a moment in which Richard descends from above on a platform and later mirrored by Bolingbroke as Henry IV don’t occur, and instead Richard’s is seen to slightly rise on the platform, while Bolingbroke does not move. This removes the religious, king-anointed-by-God imagery of the earlier production but presumably there is some health and safety reason for it not being included this time. Likewise the prison scene which took place in a trap door on the stage floor is replaced by a roll on board on which Richard sits in chains, but this change happily makes no difference to the power of the scene.
Seeing something a second time allows you to notice things that may have eluded you before, and Greg Doran’s production seems more openly sympathetic to Richard as a wronged man than it previously appeared. There are few redeeming features in Shakespeare’s presentation of Bolingbroke but Britton adds a touch of the pantomime villain to him, openly hostile to Richard’s orders from the start and with a huge chip on his shoulder. When Lindsay was in the role the character had a more thuggish approach but his claims that his invasion were solely for the purposes of honour in regaining his lost lands rang truer than they do with Britton’s interpretation which is an interesting point of comparison. Britton also makes Bolingbroke grubbier and less tender to the defeated Richard than Lindsay had been, as though his schemes run far deeper than he wants the court to believe, nicely emphasised here as they back away into the shadows as the consequences of his commands are discovered. It must be strange to take-over a central role in an established production so Britton is commended for bringing his own interpretation to it, not least for covering up sportingly when he accidentally knocked a piece of metal edging into the front row of the audience.
Leigh Quinn was a less successful exchange as the Queen, lacking the solemnity of her predecessor Hamilton. On learning of her husband’s capture and deposition she talked of woes but seemed entirely untouched by them or by their final parting which was a shame. Julian Glover, however, equals Michael Pennington as the melancholy John of Gaunt who witnesses the death of his brother and the exile of his son early in the play. The central triumvirate with Lapotaire and Ford Davis as the surviving Aunt and Uncles to King Richard add a lovely gravitas as they watch the next generation fail them. Credit also to Sam Marks who made an emotional transition to the role of Aumerle full of feeling for his King and remorse for the various betrayals he later commits to save his own life.
Tennant’s performance is every bit as good as it was in December 2013 balancing the initial ethereal god-like presence with a growing sense of his own humanity. Particularly interesting this time around was how rapidly Richard goes from never being touched – and when a subject lays a hand on him it is met with gasps from the court – to needing the physical proximity of others, to having no control whatsoever over his own body and its condition. Through the production and the torments it lays on him, Richard becomes less and less a deity on earth and more an unprotected man clinging to the little life he is allowed. Once again Tennant’s descent from regal to despondent is charted brilliantly, culminating in an especially moving scene as he publicly renounces the crown which visibly appears to cost him every bit of strength, as he bows to the inevitability of his own demise. Seeing this again, Richard II could almost be recategorised from history to tragedy as Richard’s fatal flaw (a failure to see and act clearly) signal his certain end as they do Macbeth and Hamlet. The rousing standing ovation that greeted the curtain is assurance that the Barbican audience loves Tennant as much as they do Cumberbatch.
Greg Doran’s production thus makes a welcome return to the Barbican for the next few weeks and while the cavernous stage seemed to drown last year’s Hamlet, here it is amply filled with suspicion and politicking. There were only three chances to see this play without booking the entire cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two (with Anthony Sher) and Henry V) and they all took place on the weekend just gone, but all the plays in this season have earned excellent critical reviews, so it’s worth seeing the lot, or chance your arm on the days Richard II is playing for a last minute return. The whole thing then transfers to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York from March. There will be plenty of new things to come in 2016, but as a year of Shakespeare celebrations begin, it’s a delight to look back to one of the best productions of recent years.
Richard II is part of the Shakespeare’s King and Country History Cycle that’s running in rep at the Barbican until 24 January before moving to New York from 24 March. Advanced tickets for the Barbican are only bookable for all four plays although day seats may be available for individual performances.
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