THEATRE REVIEW: Richard II, Barbican Theatre

ran until 22 January

Having missed the previous run of this show at the Barbican, I was nigh on ecstatic to get the chance to see David Tennant perform as the titular king, thanks to a fortuitous spare ticket from a fellow theatre fanatic. The first in the so-called ‘Henriad‘ tetralogy, Richard II is surely Shakespeare’s most beautifully crafted history play with some of the finest woven language. It certainly blows apart the slight resentment I held towards the supposedly dry, dusty histories during my studies of Shakespeare, desperate as I was to move onto the more glamorous tragedies or playful comedies.

This production is being revived as part of the RSC’s King and Country cycle but has probably attracted the most attention, once again, thanks to the star presence of Tennant. Indeed, stand-alone performances have been scheduled separately to the rest of the cycle, demonstrating the high demand. I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC’s The Hollow Crown adaptation of the play, particularly Ben Whishaw’s exquisite performance in the title role, so it was certainly a treat to see another of my favourite actors take on the part live in front of my eyes – and ears.

I specify “ears”, because it is a real joy to hear Tennant speak Shakespeare’s words. He is astonishingly comfortable with the Bard’s style, and his feeling of ease and confidence with the language is contagious; you feel relaxed, not straining to understand every phrase and reference, but caught in the flow and emotion of the text.

Richard II, Barbican (c) Kwame Lestrade/RSC
David Tennant as Richard II at the Barbican (c) Kwame Lestrade/RSC

With his long, Christ-like hair, luscious silk robes and gloriously light touch (at points his airiness would put the fairies of Midsummer Night’s Dream to shame) Tennant holds the audience in the palm of his hands. He is fey, capricious, petulant – fateful qualities for a king, but wonderfully appealing to the audience, bringing laughs aplenty. Yet at other times he is powerful, steely and dangerous, with a flint-like glare that almost dares anyone to disagree with this heavenly-appointed ruler. At others, he is mournful, soulful and incredibly moving as his downfall unfolds. This is no gimmicky star casting; Tennant is every bit as mesmerising as I’d hoped.

Yet what is so enjoyable about this production is that it is so clearly not a one-man show. The RSC has assembled a particularly strong ensemble who create powerful relationships and tensions on stage. Jasper Britton is forceful but undeniably likeable as he takes over the role of Henry Bolingbroke. He is earthy in the face of Richard II’s flightiness, more suited to the role of king in a traditional sense; yet Glover’s performance also shows there is depth to the character and conflict within him, which will develop not just across this play, but through into Henry IV.

Elsewhere, Julian Glover’s John of Gaunt is an all-too-brief appearance that charms and moves us. His “scepter’d isle” speech sends a thrill through the audience, as the most famous lines always do, and is a well-deserved shining moment. Oliver Ford Davies is a fantastic presence throughout the show. As the Duke of York, pulled between different sides in this conflict of kings, he is brilliantly expressive in his disapproval at his son’s behaviour and torment at what unfolds, as well as in his moments of humour. Every scene is lifted by his appearance on stage.

King and Country - RSC at the Barbican
Richard II returned to the Barbican as part of the RSC’s ‘King and Country’ season

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design somehow manages to be sparse and grand at the same time. Large, key set-pieces – from Gloucester’s coffin in the opening scene, to the dais where Richard sits and observes, to his prison cell wall – convey weighty opulence rather than fussy lavishness. The choral elegies that open the production are hauntingly beautiful, effectively conjuring the image of a court in mourning as well as an eerie undertone that foreshadows the feebly balanced structure of the monarchical position, which soon begins to crumble under pressures and poor decisions.

While Tennant is no doubt the star attraction, and unarguably lives up to expectation, this is an impressive show across the board. If it has brought new theatregoers to enjoy Shakespeare, his histories and this play in particular for the first time, the casting will have done a lot more and in less time than many an English teacher in many a schoolroom. A sparkling production whose three-hour run time feels significantly shorter as it sweeps you along in a lyrical whirl of tangible emotion and linguistic beauty.

Click here for more information. Thanks to Tim of Civilian Theatre fame for the ticket!

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