Barbican Theatre (RSC production)
In a fit of – I don’t know exactly what but it certainly wasn’t sanity – I bought tickets to see The King and Country tetralogy (also known as the Hollow Crown) over three days at the Barbican.
This production of Richard II was first put on in 2013 (and yes it’s the one with David Tennant in the title role), back for a few nights in January to allow this four-in-one staging. And it did take a little while to get into its stride – there were one or two minor slips of speech or missed lines* but after only a few scenes the cast warmed up magnificently.
The staging seemed a little stage-y after the simplicity of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, but then anything would**. The main part of the set is a large number of ceiling-to-floor chains which conjured up the grandeur of a cathedral or palace well (those soaring Norman columns) but relied on lighting effects and projections (not always successful) for other scenes. Maybe it was the angle I was at (I was VERY high up), but I did find myself fascinated by the floor – at times plain black, at other times resembling marble, or ploughed earth, or the crest of a wave – I don’t know if it was clever painting, as well as the lighting – but it was marvellous.
The costuming seemed relatively – drab I think is the word – a sea of browns and greens which seemed to dim even Richard’s gaudy gold. I’m assuming it’s a deliberate choice – we’ll see as the rest of the tetralogy plays out. Richard stood apart from the rest not only through fabric choices but also through style – more elaborate gowns, more patterned fabric – which highlighted his early majesty and underscored his loss as he ended in a dirty shirt in a cell. Both staging and costuming are played (vaguely) straight – that is straightly medieval. There are no chair-forests of Arden here.
As I’ve said before, I believe Richard II to be one of Shakespeare’s most poetical and most lyrical plays. This was played with beautifully – Richard self-consciously pronouncing rhyming judgements to sycophantic applause from his followers gave way seamlessly to his elegiac lines as he sits on the beach, and on again to Bolingbroke in majesty as Henry IV, the rhyming in him much more pronounced as than it was before he took the crown.
Ah the crown – that was the most effective, most mesmeric of props, was played with wonderfully by David Tennant: put on; taken off; dangled over a sizeable drop. It was, as it deserves to be, almost a character in its own right. A scene where Richard affects to place the crown on Aumerle’s head and the lad shies away from it really told you the whole message of the play without words at all.
But the words – oh the words! – were there, rolling beautifully out David Tennant’s mouth. It took a while for his king to make sense as a person, but when Richard came back from Ireland, he was magnificent. I think this is a function of Shakespeare’s writing – that Richard II is a man who only manages to become kingly as he loses his king-ship) Although Richard is in no way a heroic figure, he is the undoubted star of his own play (in a way Henry IV isn’t – but more anon) and David Tennant had me utterly spell-bound. He has an extraordinary gift for Shakespearean English which makes it seem perfectly clear, crisp, and even modern.*** It was apparent not only in the long speeches where Richard is alone (or nearly) but also in the more crowded scenes were Richard addresses the court – the scene where he makes Bolingbroke seize the crown seemed to everyone on stage lost in the moment, never mind the audience.
There were some other standouts among the cast – Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York, left in Richard’s trust, bending to Bolingbroke, and yet accusing his son of treachery. Said son, Aumerle, challenging so many people with treachery that he was left without gloves to throw down – so funny and so serious****.
Bolingbroke I couldn’t quite get a handle on. Jasper Britton felt too old to me for the role (an unforeseen consequence of the continuity casting for Henry IV?). It made his anger and his scheme seem less the righteous action of a hot-headed man of honour and more cold and scheming. More like treachery. But this may be my carrying too much over from the Hollow Crown’s playing with time – my history books tell me Richard reigned for 22 years and Henry IV for 14 – hardly enough time to age from Rory Kinnear to Jeremy Irons – take note BBC. Whether he felt “right” to me or not, it was a strong performance, matching David Tennant beat for beat and providing, as he ground his foot into a mirror, one of the strongest memories of the night.
I have – as always – one or two minor quibbles. Mainly – why David Tennant had to have hair extensions (I mean, just why really? Why? It made no sense to me) and why one scene came equipped with a jeering crowd with flaming torches***** whose sole contribution was to make the speeches less audible. Still, these were very very small in the scheme of things and I left the theatre burning to come back for more.
* Slightly under-rehearsed in the gap?
** And I’m really to blame for this, being the idiot who booked the tickets for the same week.
*** This is actually a great gift of the whole company – there wasn’t a single one of them who wasn’t intelligible and didn’t seem to get what they were saying, as opposed to just letting it roll over them.
**** And what an odd and awful part that must be to play – to be so close to Richard II, one of his loyal supporters, and then…
***** And possible pitchforks – I rule nothing out.