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October 30, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Richard II (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

As a statement of intent, Gregory Doran’s launch to his tenure as RSC Artistic Director is perfectly judged. Richard II is the most ‘Doranish’ production one could imagine, from the gorgeously conceived lighting design to the sensitive treatment of male-male relationships, from the meticulous attention to detail in the tiniest roles to the playful but respectful approach to history, from the star actor to the intuitive feel for a good ‘gasp’ moment. This was Doran at the height of his powers, and a deliberate attempt to show the RSC at the height of its.

Translucent curtains flanking the stage added a shimmer to the mise-en-scene but acted also as projector screens, creating the illusion of impossible depth for the opening and deposition scenes set in a cathedral or capturing the red moon while Salisbury waited with a Welsh captain. Tim Mitchell’s lighting created evocative environments for the cast, often partially shadowed as for the death of Gaunt or fully exposed in exterior scenes. The deliberate framing of characters mirrored Richard’s own self fashioning processes, creating specific effects while drawing attention to the artifice of presentation.

David Tennant’s Richard understood this power, moving through a succession of costume changes turning him from Christ-substitute in white robes to stately leader to warrior king to heavenly angel. Restricting his voice to a higher register, he nonetheless had a firmness in his pronouncements that made clear his authority. Significantly, he never seemed to be a weak king even if an emotional man, and even the vaunts of Northumberland failed to daunt him. This was in part due to his presentational skill. In a glorious moment, appearing on the castle walls, he manifested on a descending gangway dressed in golden armour and carrying his orb and sceptre. Oliver Rix’s Aumerle stood next to him gazing directly into his face, and three choral singers made up as the angels of the Wilton Diptych raised their arms to him from a side balcony. The shock of Northumberland and Hotspur not bowing to this vision was palpable.

Tennant made a clear distinction between Richard’s public and private personas, most beautifully immediate after this descent. Left alone with Aumerle, he delivered his resignation to his friend rather than to the nobles, taking off his glorious costume and sitting with Aumerle, cradling his sobbing companion in his arms and kissing him tenderly in one of the production’s many moments of sustained silence. Aumerle was his love, even if the trio of Bushy, Bagot and Greene (nicely individualised here) were the ones sticking closest to him and laughing and clapping sycophantically at their king’s jokes. His farewells to the Queen (Emma Hamilton), performed in front of a mocking mob, were similarly tender.

The public king was a more difficult man. His dismissal of the dead Gaunt and inappropriate laughter as he ordered the confiscation of his goods was linked to his followers, with Bushy and Bagot later seen playing with a perspective that Bushy movingly gifted to his friend as they parted. During the deposition scene, too, his personal performance discomfited the court. He held out a hand with the crown to force Bolingbroke to come to him, to the new king’s reluctance. The battle of wills between the two, Nigel Lindsay’s sneering Henry failing to quell Richard’s lithe physical and verbal manoeuvres, ended with Richard reascending and standing on the throne so he could look down in scorn at his rival, before demanding to depart.

Tennant had the luxury of playing opposite one of the strongest ensemble casts I’ve seen in recent years. Jane Lapotaire began the production as a weeping Duchess of Gloucester, slumped against the coffin of her husband. Her brief scene with Michael Pennington’s Gaunt made explicit the impact of Richard’s previous actions, she pleading helplessly and distractedly to her brother-in-law and to God but already abandoned by time. Pennington’s upright Gaunt was a powerful man but already haunted. Despite the presence of a chair for his final scene, Gaunt remained standing, initially pawing at the ground on which he stood and then railing physically against Richard. As these elder statesfigures passed into history, Richard’s increasing isolation – and vulnerability to the armed men who came against him – became clearer.

The strongest arc was that of the Yorks. Oliver Ford-Davies was both hysterical and affecting as the Duke. Elderly and quieter than the others of his generation, he was comforted by his son during the early scenes but then left to fend for himself. Attempting to marshal the Queen and the king’s flatterers, he resorted to muttering and shaking his head, already powerless to prevent the sweep of history. Surrounded by Bolingbroke and his followers, the old men mumbled and capitulated, almost tearful at his own weakness. Rix’s Aumerle, meanwhile, was almost a co-lead. Always on the edge of Richard’s circle but ostracised by the others (giving a charge to his later dispute with Bagot, who joined Bolingbroke’s court), Aumerle was a conflicted and troubled presence, loyal yet lost. He took a stance with Richard and was traumatised by his sovereign’s resignation, weeping in Richard’s arms. Aumerle was not accepted anywhere: he was ostracised in Bolingbroke’s court yet was the focus of Richard’s ‘Judas’ remark.

The comic scene of the Duke and Duchess (Marty Cruickshank) of York kneeling alongside each other pleading for the intense Aumerle, York harumphing at his wife’s personal slights and both competing to spread their arms the widest, drew laughs from Bolingbroke. But the comic vein of this scene was already prepared for what followed, as the petitioners ran up from an upstage trapdoor into which they descended at the end, Henry’s eyes fixed on Aumerle. A huge mirrored wall then rose from the thrust stage, reflecting in its raised underside the image of Richard lying chained and dishevelled in the deep. This closing sequence was played fast and furious, as Richard fended off attackers and was then stabbed from behind. Pulling the mask from his attacker, Richard revealed Aumerle, falling into his former companion’s arms. The excision of the previous Piers of Exton scene set up this rather manipulative but extremely effective shock moment and completed Aumerle’s satisfying arc, given a forceful coda as he left the court running following Henry’s banishment of him while York wept openly.

The detail elsewhere was sublime. Antony Byrne’s bluff Mowbray stood staunchly against Bolingbroke and reacted with barely restrained emotion to his banishment, even clutching at Richard’s arm to the outraged cries of the court. On being called upon by Bolingbroke to confess, he turned to his liege and the two fixed eyes for a long and tense silence, making absolutely clear that he and Richard both knew the truth about Gloucester’s murder. His heaving sigh as he finally refused was heartbreaking, making the ultimate sacrifice for the king he loved. The brooding and sadistic Northumberland (Sean Chapman) was accompanied by men who loved violence, whether honourably (if enthusiastically) as in Edmund Wiseman’s Hotspur, or cruelly as in Youssef Kerkour’s towering and intimidating Willoughby. York, in particular, had no chance against these men as they surrounded and escorted him.

In all the fine detail, even including arcs for Richard’s groom, some aspects inevitably got lost. Hamilton’s Queen was overshadowed throughout and, while offering a fine and upstanding performance, was particularly upstaged by the rather crude baying mob for her farewell scene, a moment that jarred with the tone elsewhere as hooded men ran across the stage and threw what looked like eggs. Lindsay’s Bolingbroke, too, was sidelined in favour of the other relationships between Richard and his followers. Lindsay was strong, sarcastic and even laconic in his assumption of the throne, but served primarily as a foil for Richard. There was another duff note as Aumerle practically ran onstage in the final moments pulling a coffin that clearly had no weight in it. The grounded and wearing delivery of the body in both the Hollow Crown film and Michael Boyd’s production was sacrificed here for a cheap and unnecessary final appearance by Tennant, standing on a balcony above the horrified Bolingbroke’s head.

The fact that such complaints seem worth mentioning, however, is perhaps testament to a production that, in direct contrast to Michael Grandage’s similarly starry Midsummer Night’s Dream, worked hard at the text, found depth in the themes and individualised even such characters as Scroop and Ross. Aurally and visually stunning, and gripping from start to finish, this Richard II showcased Doran’s ability to make every word of a production clear and significant. It’s a bold opening to a new phase of the RSC’s work, and as difficult to resist as Richard’s own kingly performance.

Posted in Theatre review