Richard II // Review

Photo © Elliott Franks

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II has, amongst its arsenal of powerhouse actors, one particularly massive draw: David Tennant. The billboards that plaster the underground feature not Richard II on his throne, but David Tennant converse clad with sceptre in hand. RSC made the most of their star performer’s clout and immeasurable popularity for marketing’s sake. It is no surprise that David Tennant lived up to the hype and delivered a shiver enduing performance as deposed monarch Richard II.

From the moment Tennant steps on stage, the audience is enraptured. His lilting voice hints subtly at a less than straight inward leaning, and his airs and graces are both laughable and unsettling. His flippant nature towards Gloucester’s death is heightened by the very presence of the coffin and mourning widow. But as the play moves on, Richard’s haphazard decisions slowly begin to reveal his ineptitude at being king, despite his love of the crown and title.

What makes Tennant’s performance in particular so awe-inspiring is his ability to peel back the layers of a character in all due time. Over the course of two hours, Richard’s truer nature is patiently revealed, drawing out empathy in the audience. One watches the transformation from King to Man and then, subsequently, to Prisoner – to something less than human. It is in these moments, however, that Tennant’s power is truly at its highest. Stripped of his regal clothes and shields, the fanciful façade fades to reveal Richard’s mildly sociopathic, Hamlet-like personality.

The RSC makes good use of Shakespeare’s metaphors. The two in particular that stand out in both performance and design are the sun and the mirror. When Richard descends on a platform from the fly space above he is basked in an orange glow. This same light is later used for Henry Bolingbroke, though to a far lesser extent. The use of the mirror is where RSC’s true innovation shines. The audience’s first glimpse into Richard’s prison cell is through a giant reflection of the below-stage-level room. As Tennant himself states, “If you want to do Shakespeare’s plays… Really [RSC] is the place to do them.”

The audience watches Richard unravel, feeling both empathy and pity. Every aspect of Tennant’s performance is bewitching – from his vocal abilities, to the subtlety of each carefully crafted movement – one longs to see him return to the stage the second he steps off. His performance appeals on both a visceral and intellectual level, allowing the audience the space to think without displacing the emotional relevancy and immediacy these actions have. Even chained down, Tennant’s energy is boundless.

Surrounded by a slew of incredible actors (particularly Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York), RSC proves the old adage true: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – but Tennant is truly the greatest part. Whether donned in noble robes or a filthy white nightgown, David Tennant has all the power and command of a king.

Gabriella Geisinger is a 24 year old New Yorker, relocated to London to pursue her M.A. in Creative Writing: Narrative Nonfiction. Gabriella writes most frequently about music, but is also a published poet and a playwright.