Late last week, Gregory Doran announced his inaugural season as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Artistic Director. The headliner of this season is without a doubt David Tennant returning to the RSC as Richard II, which Doran will direct himself. Whovians and Shakespeareans alike were literally heard everywhere – including quite loudly in my own living room – when the announcement was made, and I for one am going to start saving for my trip to England immediately for the sole purpose of seeing this show.David Tennant will play Richard II in the RSC’s Winter 2013 Season
David and Gregory worked together just a few years ago on the RSC’s awesome production of Hamlet (which, if you haven’t seen it – you’ve gotta find a three hour window — make your way to YouTube, and watch Part 1 and Part 2 of this superb film adaptation of the performance). David said that he expects Doran’s production of Richard II to be “surprising,” and if his Hamlet is any indication, I don’t think he’s wrong about that. I literally don’t think I’ve ever been so excited.
Anyway, Tennant said something in his interview that was released after the announcement that got me thinking a lot about Shakespeare’s Richard. Tennant said, “There was always something in that part that was extraordinary and enticing and slightly unknowable… he’s not a hero at all.” I think Tennant is quite right. However, I find it fascinating how actors choose to play his enticing unknowability. Despite Richard’s unheroic status, most productions still ignite a sense of pity or sympathy for Richard, which makes me believe that this isn’t a directorial choice so much as a given in Shakespeare’s text.
As Richard falls further and further throughout the play, his arrogance slowly transforms itself into self-awareness. By his final speech in prison, Richard is aware of all that he is and how he has come to be in such a place. Mark Rylance’s 2003 portrayal of the deposed king is my personal favorite, particularly in this final scene. He portrays Richard as a vulnerable and delicate king, who is proven to be quite hollow and empty once he is stripped of his title and wealth. However, Richard’s vulnerability transforms in this final scene. He was deposed because of his vulnerability, but in this final scene, it is his vulnerability that aids him in his journey to self-actualization through the ability to articulate his thoughts to thin air. Vulnerability is no longer a weakness for Richard but is now an asset. Click here to see this extraordinary performance.Mark Rylance in The Globe’s 2003 production of Richard II
It is quite likely that Queen Elizabeth herself knew of this Shakespeare play because of the play’s involvement in a rebellion against the Queen (in which Shakespeare had no direct involvement). Queen Elizabeth supposedly remarked to her archivist William Lamarde, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Many, including some of her own favorite counselors, attempted to depose Queen Elizabeth throughout her reign.
Richard, however, feels safe in ceremony. His anointment is his protection, and he even says with complete confidence, “The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord.” While this is an arrogant, and even ignorant, move on his behalf – I can’t help but understand his confidence in the traditions that have created and kept him and his forefather’s kings. According to Derek Jacobi, who also played Richard II, Richard not thinking things through is the real tragedy of the play. Jamie Parker captures this confidence superbly in Jacobi’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Can he please play Richard II after David Tennant? My life would be complete.
The most recent Richard II was a part of last summer’s Hollow Crown series on the BBC. Ben Whishaw played the title role, citing his performance as being inspired by characters such as Michael Jackson and Jesus Christ – because of their “otherness” qualities. In Whishaw’s interpretation of the deposed king, Richard is quite fond of spectacle and is always performing. This makes getting to the real Richard an especially difficult feat. Whishaw says of Richard, “He’s a very ambiguous character. He’s appealing in some ways and very disturbing in others.”
Ben Whishaw as Richard II in BBC’s “Hollow Crown”
The highlight of this particular production is the deposition scene. I found myself going from completely uncomfortable to actually cheering Richard on at several points in this 15 minute scene. It is electric. You’ve gotta see this scene. Better yet, you’ve gotta see this entire production.
I can’t end this post in any other way but with Richard’s own words: “You may my glories and state depose, / But not my griefs, still am I king of those.”