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David Tennant plays Richard II like a casual hippie

His thoroughly modern king may appeal to younger folk, but is a betrayal of Shakespeare's complexity

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

Richard II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon / Barbican Theatre, London, in rep until 16 November / 9 December to 25 January 2014

Gregory Doran, now in command at Stratford in succession to Sir Michael Boyd, launches his regime with Richard II, intending to stage the complete Shakespearean canon over the next six years, ‘making every play an event’. What’s really good is that the plays will also be seen on tour, in London, online and ‘live on screen in cinemas and classrooms nationwide’. It’s taken too long for the publically funded RSC to put live ‘streaming’ in place; Richard II, broadcast on 13 November, will be the first play so honoured.

With David Tennant in the title role this may already be a sell-out, but encore screenings are already planned in many cinemas. As Tennant has recently been a memorable RSC Hamlet, casting him as the introspective, poetical king was an obvious follow-up. The German director Claus Peymann is not alone in seeing Richard as ‘a Hamlet come to power’. This may be a little too glib, but it’s an idea worth chewing on.

Like it or not, you have to accept that a star like Tennant is going to dominate. This pulls two ways because, while it’s magic at the box office, it’s not overfriendly towards the ensemble principle Doran has inherited from Boyd. Nevertheless, you can’t do Richard II without someone pretty charismatic in the title role and Tennant undoubtedly measures up. His arrival on the Stratford stage is a rumbustious, disconcertingly breezy shock after Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance in last year’s BBC Hollow Crown Histories. With the advantage of being so often close to camera, Whishaw inhabited this most inward, self-communing role of all the History plays, holding you spellbound with its poetry.

Tennant, needing to command the live Stratford audience, chooses a very different approach. In the early scenes, clad in a long white shift and with a disastrously ropy wig, barely retained by his crown, tumbling down his back, he strides restlessly around the stage like a hippie wanting only to be off with his friends. Doran’s production stakes out a huge distance between the grey, sad sobriety of the elder courtiers Gaunt and York, the political jousting of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and Tennant’s impatient Richard. This impatience extends to rattling off the verse and treating it jokingly, even sneeringly, when he can.

Plainly the idea is to dethrone Richard as a misunderstood, saintly figure. But in playing up the unpleasant Richard of history, and the quirky irresponsibility of Shakespeare’s king — as in underlining his selfish glee at Gaunt’s demise and Bolingbroke’s exile —  Tennant makes him too casual and childish a figure. He treats his subjects to an unpleasantly modern kind of scornful disrespect, and although this will doubtless be in tune with younger folk coming to the play for the first time, it’s a betrayal of Shakespeare’s more complex coding of behaviour. The production sets up a quasi-medieval context but the impulsive informality of Tennant’s delivery can only be squared with Shakespeare’s lines by distorting them. So we have a thoroughly modern Richard — pretty much David Tennant playing David Tennant — at odds, unsurprisingly, with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan exploration of the divine claims of kingship, and of the morality of justifiable rebellion and deposition.

That matters can be otherwise is demonstrated by Doran’s seasoned Shakespeareans with great voices, not least Michael Pennington, who brilliantly lets you see both old Gaunt’s anger and his awareness of his own small part in England’s ‘shameful conquest of itself’. Jane Lapotaire, making a long-overdue return to Stratford, is quite superb as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester. Oliver Ford Davies’s fumbling, worrying way with York underlines the appalling equivocation of a character once perfectly dubbed ‘the first civil servant in our literature’. Between Richard and his breast-beating uncles stands the realpolitik of Sean Chapman’s Northumberland and Nigel Lindsay’s rather too stolid Bolingbroke.

It remains to add that nothing becomes Tennant’s Richard better than his fall. Appearing as though in Baroque opera like a golden Phaethon-like figure high on the battlements of Flint Castle, he strips off the finery to kiss away his kingship — and more lingeringly his friendship with Aumerle — before finally coming down to earth as the pitiable human figure who surrenders to the taciturn Bolingbroke. Through the play we’ve seen David Tennant, the fabulous natural comedian, tussling to reinvent himself in a great tragic role. Immobilised by chains in the prison scene, he at last breaks through to find unaffected power in simply living the poetry. If Tennant can carry something of this back into the earlier part of the play it will be all to the good. Less can be so very much more.

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