Theatre Review: Richard II @ The Barbican

I went to see Richard II as part of the RSC’s King and Country Cycle, which presented Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V over the course of three days.

I’ll be frank; I’m a pretty staunch republican – in the British sense, that is, not the American. I didn’t watch the royal Wedding, I couldn’t tell you the name of William and Kate’s daughter, and I joined the Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. In short, I don’t really think the monarchy has a place in 21st century Britain.

Why then, upon seeing the RSC’s Richard II at the Barbican, a play that spends an awful long time ruminating upon the roles and responsibilities of a King, and upon the moralities of deposing one, was I moved to the point of tears (well, almost)? Was it because of David Tennant’s superlative, messianic performance as the eponymous king? Was it because Gregory Doran’s production was so mesmerisingly rich in detail, so gloriously symbolic in design? Or was it because, with Richard II, Shakespeare managed to strike at the heart of England, at the essence of the English monarchy, so profoundly and in such soaring, scintillating verse that the bones of any Englishman – republican or not – cannot fail to be stirred? Well, as should be obvious by now, it’s all three.

It’s David Tennant that has drawn audiences to this production, as well he should, for he puts in a masterly performance. At first, bedecked in gold and silver, he is almost menacing in his chirpy playfulness. Then, as he sacks the house of the recently deceased John of Gaunt, he is a cruel, insolent tyrant, dismissing the warnings of others with a chillingly flirtatious laugh. Next, as his fall from grace becomes inevitable, he is misery defined, clawing at the ground in desperate anguish. And finally, stripped of all but his gown, he is unexpectedly noble. His wit and eloquence are now less the affectations of a changeable dictator, more the essence of kingly integrity. It is only when he loses his crown that he truly becomes a monarch.

But Tennant’s is not the only standout performance. Oliver Ford Davies is thoroughly convincing, managing to convey York’s indecision well and providing exquisite comedy as the beleaguered husband to Sarah Parks’ strident Duchess of York. Jasper Britton is briefly compelling as the elderly Gaunt – his eulogy to a vanishing England is delivered with charming vigour – and Julian Glover is suitably gruff as the usurping Bolingbroke. Many more sterling turns abound.

Doran directs with a keen majesty throughout. Each scene feels so vital, so momentous. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ sparse design – a metallic gangway, a heavy throne, rich, earthy costumes – allows this grandeur to fully impact. There are no distractions, only the barons of England standing around like ancient titans, Glover’s Bolingbroke among them, and Tennant’s feverish Richard flitting from haughty arrogance to tearful despair upon a bare stage.

This is the real strength of Doran’s production. It is a complex tale of responsibility and loyalty yes, but it is also a celebration of England, of English history, and of the world-shaping story of the English monarchy – just as Shakespeare intended it of course. Richard II reminds one how a strong king can unite a country and how a weak one can divide it, but it does more than that. It forces one to recognise the unparalleled significance of the monarchy in the shaping of this Scepter’d Isle. It makes one realise that the monarchy, like the tolling of a church bell echoing across the countryside and like the poetry of Wordsworth and Blake, like the hourly pips on Radio 4 and like Joe Root’s flashing bat on a sunny day at Lord’s, is an essential part of this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

I came into the RSC’s King and County cycle (which continues tonight with Henry IV Part 1) as a republican. I have the sneaking suspicion that I will leave it a monarchist (of a sort, at least). We shall see.



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