I have been procrastinating writing this Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II review for months. It’s not because I disliked this production: it was pure perfection, from the seamless quality of the cast, to scenography and costumes, to the stellar work of the director Gregory Doran.
I have been probably sensing the intense responsibility that goes with such an important task. Writing personal impressions mingled with an objective report of a performance is hard when we are publically publishing material concerning Shakespeare’s plays, especially when it’s not a comedy but a historical drama written in England during the 16th century, in a period when politic and art were far more tangled than nowadays.
Of course, performing Richard II is more of a commitment than just writing an article about it, especially for actors playing the main roles, who in effect, become a part of history from that moment on, and if we consider we are talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company, the actors become part of theatrical mythology. David Tennant, who plays Richard II, states in the interview included in the DVD that it’s humbling, intimidating and exciting to work with RSC. I share his same feelings as I write a review about this unparalleled theatrical experience and its digital release.
Prior to seeing the stage version, I already knew the play as a Shakespeare scholar, and from the BBC Hollow Crown series. Before attending last RSC’s winter production, I read again the text, not only to be “prepared” concerning the language and the plot, but mainly because, when I go and watch this kind of production, I like to know, at my best, what the play is about and with which words the story is told, so that I can concentrate on the actors, music, lighting, direction, and anything “sensorial” that is experienced when watching a live performance. But nothing could have prepared me for such a beautiful and powerful artistic expression, delivered to the public by the very loving and respectful hands of director Doran and his production team.
David Tennant’s interpretation of Richard II is innovative, when comparing him to others who have performed the same role over the last four decades. The vertical descent of this king’s human condition, from a god-like figure to a poor devil, is symbolized not only in the scenery and the direction, which show Richard on a high balcony facing the audience when he is at the top of his glory and in a prison-pit built under the stage right before he is murdered, but also in every verse, gesture and attitude demonstrate how hard Tennant has worked on the part not only to act the character but to become Richard II, an exhausting role, when played so wholeheartedly. For example, in Richard’s famous speech starting with the verse “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,” when he is back from Ireland and discovers he is going to lose his reign, he creeps and sits on the stage floor as if he were looking for an answer to his wretched destiny in the very soil of his country. He pronounces Shakespeare’s words as if they were a pray, not only to God, but also to the same England, where he knows he is no longer the king.
Nigel Lindsay’s Bolingbroke is determined and focused from the beginning of the plot. Nothing distracts him from what he wants: the crown, not even Mowbray’s attempt to defend his honor or Richard’s evidence of vulnerability toward the end of the play. Lindsay’s Bolingbroke is as solid as the very rock on which the medieval concept of England’s monarchy sits. Michael Pennington’s Gaunt alone would be worth watching this production. He does not perform this character as a weak and suffering old man, but as a duke from an ancient and respectful family, who fights to keep noble traditions and moral justice alive. His scene with Gloucester’s widow, played by Jane Lapotaire, is touching, passionate, and pure classical theatre. In Gaunt’s prophetic speech about England, pronounced right before his last meeting with the king, he expresses genuine despair regarding his country’s desperate conditions, with some hesitation at first, and burning with sincere rage at the end.
When I first received my DVD, I decided to start with the extras since I already had the live experience of the performance. I wanted to know if I could find the play’s inspiration. And I found it indeed. Starting with David Tennant’s interview, where he, with a few simple but passionate words, narrates how he became enamored with the controversial character Richard II and how he found the way, through reading the script, a visit to Westminster, and the advice from his director and cast mates, to shift the audience – and his own – sympathy for this king from the beginning to the end of the play: from a dislikable, egotistic, selfish man of power, convinced to be anointed by God, to a Jesus like figure, not only represented in the white gown, the long hair and the fact that he is murdered at last by his “Judas” cousin Aumerle, but for the actual change in the attitude of this character towards the world and the people around him, from inward to outward, as if, while his fatal end inevitably approaches, he discovers he can be a man like others, with the same feelings, which can complete anyone as an human being.
More gems were found in the director’s commentary such as a talk between the director and John Wyver (the producer of the “Live from Stratford” version of Richard II), where they discuss the main ideas that transform this Richard II into an original adventure. This was not only the first production for Doran as Artistic Director of RSC, but also the first play ever broadcasted live to cinemas from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, and it is now showing as an encore screening in cinemas across the world.
As Doran rightly states, the stage can hide weakness in a theatrical performance, but the camera will never lie. As a mirror up to nature, in this case the filming skills of the operators and Doran’s clever direction added value to a play which in itself, and especially when planned and played with such careful attention for Shakespeare’s words and context, constitutes per se a masterpiece to be proud of, not just for Shakespeare lovers and scholars, but for the whole human race.
At this link, you will find any details about this Royal Shakespeare Company production, including production photos and diary, interviews and much more.