By Dominic Cavendish
Five years after his spellbinding Hamlet, David Tennant is back at the RSC and reunited with director (now artistic director) Gregory Doran for Richard II. Last time round there was a lot of hoo-ha about Doctor Who and a box-office frenzy. Maybe there’ll be more of that again, with Tennant joining Matt Smith for the 50th anniversary special next month. But for the moment, a calm air of focus prevails; Tennant, 42, is in his natural element – and day tickets are available.
His hair takes some getting used to: great gingery-brown extensions trail girlishly downwards. Long, magisterial, quasi-medieval robes add to the effeminate impression. In Act III, at Flint Castle, beset by ruin, this Richard leans close and kisses his cousin Aumerle (the youthful, boyish Oliver Rix) on the lips. As with Hamlet, so with Richard – there’s an identity crisis at play (“remember who you are”, Aumerle counsels, as if that were possible), but here it’s of a sexual nature too. And in a further directorial flourish, Doran makes Aumerle the last face the imprisoned, ousted monarch sees, plunging the dagger into him.
Overall, though, this production is more reverent than radical. Doran has suggested he will work slowly, steadily, through the canon – and the first scene especially, in which Nigel Lindsay’s tough, gruff, almost too-too solid Bolingbroke squares up to Antony Byrne’s aggrieved Mowbray – each accusing the other of treason – feels slow and steady to a fault. Richard’s reign, some 20 years in at this stage (1398), was in severe trouble. Thanks to an emphasised aura of restraint – signalled by a stark, simple set from Stephen Brimson Lewis, augmented by subtle projections on towering screens – you don’t get much sense of the hurly-burly of this chapter of history or of events spinning wildly out of the king’s weakening control.
With his startled eyes and concentrated frown, Tennant is frail, pale and consistently interesting but the nervous energy he excels in is confined to quarters early on. Trumpets sound, sopranos trill sacred music as if wafting incense; the king is embalmed in ceremony, cloaked in remoteness.
It’s the older hands who galvanise proceedings with emotional intensity in the first half. A quivering Jane Lapotaire as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, spilling over with unconfined grief, that perpetually stooped, hangdog actor Oliver Ford Davies as the fretful Duke of York and Michael Pennington, little short of magnificent as John of Gaunt – lending febrile and ferocious emphasis to his “This sceptr’d isle” speech and to those last-gasp accusations against Richard.
The evening is always lucid but only truly crystalises as things fall apart. Richard spasms with panic as he grasps the frailty of existence, crawling on the floor in abjection. He’s appealingly sardonic as he bows in exaggeration before his usurper, and at the end, having taken on the aspect of Christ, he appears aloft on a gantry, looking down in beatific accusation as Bolingbroke contemplates the blood on his hands. Tennant shines, but he has shone brighter.source