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Despite the solemn beauty and stillness of its audaciously drawn-out prologue, with three sopranos singing ethereal sacred music while a widow kneels in grief over her slain husband’s funeral casket, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran’s staging of Richard II is most notable for the supple playfulness of David Tennant’s performance in the title role. An extravagant monarch as capricious in his rulings as in his seesawing mood swings from airy self-deification to sinking self-doubt, Tennant’s narcissistic king flounces about the stage in long ginger tresses and flowing brocade robes, looking part-Jesus and part-Florence Welch. This is a man too stuck inside his own pretty head to govern.
Your appreciation for this fascinating if uneven production will depend on where you stand with Tennant’s knowingly mannered take on the role. But few will get to judge given that the 10 New York performances of the play — the first part of the Henriad, presented here as King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings — sold out before opening. Either way, the U.S. stage debut of the brilliant Scottish actor known to American television audiences as the space- and time-traveler in Doctor Who, the brooding detective in Broadchurch or the supervillain in Jessica Jones doesn’t disappoint. He has played this role on and off since 2013, after starring in an acclaimed RSC Hamlet five years earlier.
Tennant is in no hurry to reveal the pathos of his king, who underestimates the threat of the rebellion building against him, placing delusional trust in his beloved English soil to repel his enemies or in God to blight them with pestilence. Even when he finally exposes the vulnerability beneath the bored haughtiness, expressed in verse that trips off the actor’s tongue with marvelous spontaneity, the character’s tragedy remains somewhat muted.
In an affecting scene that heralds the drama’s transition of power, Richard acknowledges that his days as king are numbered. He attempts to stick the crown on the head of his handsome cousin Aumerle (Sam Marks) before locking him in a long and tender kiss as they sit alone on a gantry. The unequivocal suggestion that repressed sexuality is another part of this effeminate Richard’s identity crisis is of course not new. Aspects of Doran’s take on the play echo that chapter in the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, with Ben Whishaw in the role, particularly in the Christ-like imagery of the later scenes, which take their cue from Richard’s own perception of himself. Having Aumerle — and not Exton, as in the text — wield the dagger that kills the fallen king adds another layer of intimacy to the sorrow.
Richard’s most memorable speeches come late in the play. Among them is his melancholy, history-spanning reflection on the “death of kings,” and his mocking deposition, when he reluctantly relinquishes the throne to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Jasper Britton), back from being banished at the start of the play. There’s inspired mischief in the way Tennant summons Henry like a dog to fetch the crown, or rattles off the terms of his abdication like a petulant child reciting verse. But there’s also poignancy in his assertion that he will give up the title and trappings of his office though not his grief. The emptiness that descends as he ponders what’s left of him is haunting, notably in the mirror scene, in which Richard is surprised to find that the blows he’s been dealt haven’t aged him. The sad irony of the character is that he only seems to start caring about being king once he’s been “unkinged.”
David Tennant in ‘Richard II’
Tennant is at his mercurial best in these scenes, which are also where the production summons full strength. The weightier interiority of his performance as events progress to Richard’s imprisonment and murder marks a meaningful change from his effete arrogance and insensitivity earlier. For instance, when he shrugs off the death of his chiding uncle, John of Gaunt (Julian Glover), before swiftly appropriating his wealth to finance the war against Ireland. Richard II doesn’t match the juicy intrigue or propulsive action of some of the other history plays, despite its beheadings, betrayals and climactic regicide. But Doran delineates Shakespeare’s depiction of unfit leadership and misused power with subtlety and intelligence.
Not every aspect of the production is as sharp. While Britton may be saving his fire for the two parts of King Henry IV that follow, he makes a stolid, uncharismatic royal usurper here. The casting choice seems to favor the gravitas of age and accumulated experience that comes later, rather than this more youthful period. However, Britton’s stony-faced aloofness throughout Richard’s farewell antics is persuasive, showing that he sees through the deposed king’s posturing with his cutting takedown, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed/The shadow of your face.”
Doran overstates the contrast separating greasy-haired Henry and his brawny thugs — the Earl of Northumberland (Sean Chapman), his strapping son Harry Percy (Matthew Needham) and Willoughby (Andrew Westfield) — from coyly preening Richard and his foppish “flatterers,” Bushy (Martin Bassindale), Bagot (Nicholas Gerard-Martin) and Greene (Robert Gilbert). It’s amusing to see this trio whispering conspiratorially in the king’s ear in early court scenes, or applauding his put-downs like a mean-girl clique. But it does seem like pandering for laughs.
The women are also weak, not helped by a drama that already marginalizes them. As Richard’s queen, Leigh Quinn looks lovely but finds not much poignant dimension in a character that comes across here as just a loyal beard. Sarah Parks already seems to be warming up to play coarse tavern keeper Mistress Quickly in the Henry plays; her Duchess of York pleads with Henry to spare her treasonous son’s life like a pantomime dame begging naughty favors. And while it’s a pleasure to see distinguished veteran Jane Lapotaire on a New York stage, her Duchess of Gloucester, widowed before the action begins, seems dotty and distracted. Her garbled delivery often becomes unintelligible, taking the sting out of her seething wish for vengeance.
By way of compensation, the troupe’s two most seasoned males couldn’t be better. Glover’s John of Gaunt is a nobleman of deep integrity, whose failing health prompts him to let loose a tirade of anger about the flagrant mismanagement of the king and his cronies. Similarly exasperated by the younger generation’s failings is the terrific Oliver Ford Davies’ crotchety Duke of York, torn in his loyalties between his nephews Richard and Henry, and willing to send his own son, Aumerle, to his death for plotting against the king. Marks also makes a strong impression in that conflicted role, his flood of tears at Richard’s downfall indicating genuine love.
But the commandingly eccentric center of the production is Tennant, even after Richard’s death, when he ascends on the gantry while the newly crowned Henry casts a timorous look in that direction. In terms of the physical staging, there’s also much to admire, particularly in designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ sparing use of video elements on a shimmering scrim curtain to suggest different 14th century settings. The play looks simultaneously austere and majestic on the Harvey Theater stage, with its imposing height and atmospherically distressed proscenium and boxes. It lays expert groundwork for the rest of Doran’s ambitious project.
Venue: BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn
Cast: David Tennant, Leigh Quinn, Julian Glover, Jasper Britton, Oliver Ford Davies, Sarah Parks, Sam Marks, Jane Lapotaire, Christopher Middleton, Martin Bassindale, Nicholas Gerard-Martin, Robert Gilbert, Simon Thorp, Jim Hooper, Keith Osborn, Sean Chapman, Matthew Needham, Simon Yadoo, Andrew Westfield, Emma King, Evelyn Miller, Joshua Richards, Obioma Ugoala, Daniel Abbot, Dale Mathurin
Director: Gregory Doran
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set & costume designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting designer: Tim Mitchell
Music: Paul Englishby
Sound designer: Martin Slavin
Movement director: Michael Ashcroft
Fight director: Terry King
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Royal Shakespeare Company, Ohio State University
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