Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
First, the hair. Richard II may be a gem of a history play, a triumph of poetry, a very English tragedy, but David Tennant’s king stuns us, first and foremost, with a wonderful brown weave cascading down his back. And if it’s just hair, it’s apt: luxuriant, self-indulgent, slightly absurd (to the modern eye, anyway), it’s a nice encapsulation of Richard of Bordeaux’s reign. As he quaffs wine and scoffs sweeties, depleting his nation’s coffers because God says he can, he’s a medieval pop star, a divine brat manipulating the system. It’s Florence and a particularly mean Machine. [
Does Tennant ever blink? In the first half, it seems not: his Richard is a wide-eyed despot, softly maniacal but oh so full of charm. Most of his lines come as bitchy asides, a welcome relief from the doom and gloom of his depressed court: when he shrugs off a "So much for that", moving on from Gaunt's death two seconds earlier, the audience give a shocked cackle. A mixture of nonchalance and glib spite, he fairly has us eating out of the palm of his hand. So many of his lines elicited laughs, it almost seemed silly; surely we're not meant to chuckle so much? But that's the Tennant gift. And of course, when Richard starts his spiral downwards, his natural sympathy stands him in good stead. Even as he relinquishes power to Bolingbroke in the deposition scene (masterfully done), he navigates the comic and the tragic with ease.
Nigel Lindsay is a perfect foil for him as Bolingbroke. Lindsay can offer so many great variations on the pub landlord - and that's a compliment. From weary seen-it-allness to doughty bulldog aggression, he seems to offer exactly what Richard lacks. He looks rather a good sort until he is swinging two bags of decapitated heads (Shakespeare never fails to emphasise what a grey mucky scramble the struggle for power is.) Even better casting is Sean Chapman as a wolfish Northumberland; when he stands at the castle gates, waiting for Richard to surrender, he positively licks his lips. Then there are the RSC stalwarts: when Michael Pennington and Oliver Ford Davies first proceed on together, as the uncles Gaunt and York respectively, you almost roll your eyes. But Pennington ends up giving a great, sweaty, incandescent turn with Gaunt's deathbed scene; while Ford Davies is a thoroughly lovable York,a much needed injection of warmth, as is Marty Cruickshank as his Duchess.
Greg Doran's production is solid and elegant; likewise Stephen Brimson Lewis's set isn't showy or ambitious, mostly a series of projections there to serve the actors. Yet Doran develops one special twist, a rapport between two characters it's best not to give away. His reading gives a kick to what is, ultimately, a sad and sorry play: a charting of the endemic rot in England, a gorgeous verse prelude to 100 years of bloody civil war. Tennant's Richard, for all his godly rights, is just the flavour of the month, good to be chucked when we've had enough. Hair today, gone tomorrow.