by Dominic Maxwell
He hasn't got a clue has he? You can see that from the moment David Tennant's Richard II arrives on stage with his chin uo, his hair Timotei-long, his robes and his diction refined to the point of self parody. This takes a moment to adjust to. So regularly do we root for Tennant as the heroic outsider, whether in Doctor Who or Broadchurch or even in his RSC Hamlet, that it's odd to see him back a losing horse.
When he descends from the ceiling on a golden throne, the gap couldn't be clearer between his notion of himself as a God-given ruler and our notion of him as a bit of a berk.
Not that Tennant's performance or Gregory Doran's RSC production turn out to be cartoonish. One of the hottest tickets of the year long before it opened, this is a clear, propulsive, absorbing three hours of a history play that is no cinch to stage. After all, it's in verse. It has no battles. At the first sign of uprising, the belly aching Richard pretty much deposes himself ("Let's talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs..."). "Richard II is not an action packed drama", understates the introduction to the Penguin edition of the play.
Here, though, it grips, aided by Paul Englishby's beautiful period music and Stephen Brimson Lewis's spare, guilded sets. And what Tennant does, brilliantly, is to suggest a man who feels as hollow as his crown. Who play acts at being himself. Who makes bad judgments, such as expelling his cousing Bolingbroke, soon to become Henry IV, that are a weak man's idea of being strong. He is hiding his true sexuality too, to judge by his long kiss with his cousin, Oliver Rix's Aumerle. And when he is trounced by Nigel Lindsay's stocky, gym-teacher-like Bolingbroke, he goes from ruler to martyr. he proffers the crown as if holding out a stick to a dog ("Here, cousin!").
We don't love him, but we get his grief in a play suffused with a sense of loss. Jane Lapotaire's Duchess of Gloucester mourns her husband and Michael Pennington's John Of Gaunt mourns what Richard has done to England in anguished moments that are both magnificent and a bit hard to absorb so early on. By the second half, though, Doran's production can sell everything from wit to desolation. Near the end, the Yorks, played by Oliver Ford Davies and Marty Cruickshank, row about his turning in their son, Aumerle as a traitor. It's pretty funny. It's also a resonant reminder of how the power play and posturing of politics is no job for amateurs.