A ROCK STAR RICHARD
David Tennant’s Richard is a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with the epicene arrogance of a Russell Brand and a scornful eloquence to match. Defeated, he lurches into self-pitying abasement only to erupt again into royal entitlement. Deposed, he roams the stage in bare feet and white nightie comparing his betrayal to Christ’s. Tennant is almost unbearably watchable, his handling of the verse breathtaking in its ease. His cousin and nemesis Bolingbroke is NIgel Lindsay: stocky and stubbled, chain-mailed gut hanging over his belt, righteous in banished fury and implacable in rebellion. He sighs with visible impatience at the deposed King’s drama-queen antics with the crown. This beginning of Shakespeare’s History cycle falls more easily than most into the headshaking dualism of 1066 And All That: Richard is Wrong but Wromantic, Bolingbroke Right but Repulsive.
Which is not to say that there is anything unsubtle about Gregory Doran’s production – marked by his trademark courteous clarity of line – or much wrong with Tennant’s interpretation of the doomed Richard. At times near the end I felt that his elfin edge of humour sold short the journey of self-discovery which Shakespeare gives the King: even near death his vanity conquers all, and Doran also chooses to make his relationship with young Aumerle rather more emotionally credible than his marriage. But that is a matter of interpretation, and fair enough. And for all Tennant’s shining star quality the real sinews of the production, its glory and its fifth star, reside elsewhere.
For it is a marvellous evening and, with its simple use of shadowy, mirrory projections of grey arches, thorny wilderness and heraldic tapestries, ideal for Doran’s intention to film, stream and distribute it to schools. From the opening scene around the coffin of the King’s murdered uncle where the widow (Jane Lapotaire) delivers her fusillade of desperate grief, through the aborted duel with Richard aloft on his dais undermining the chivalrous code of his barons, each character and nuance emerges with unemphatic firmness. Michael Pennington’s masterly John of Gaunt, the last wise romantic of the dynasty, laments the “landlording” of England; his brother York struggles with the statesmanlike problems of a necessary but shockingly illegal regime change, turning from the impossible Richard to the all-too-possible Bolingbroke with beautifully nuanced exasperation.
Indeed it must be noted that, for all the marvels of Tennant, Lapotaire, and the rest, the old-pro solid gold performance of the night belongs to Oliver Ford Davies as York. As the principled old patriot in an impossible position, or the enraged father in the blackly comic scenes with his lovelorn traitor son and his furious wife (Marty Cruikshank, a ferociously fine cameo), he takes the palm. It is Ford Davies who most draws sighs, small laughs and sympathies from the audience; he who provides the ballast halfway between the wonderfully dislikeable Bolingbroke and the fools’-gold spendthrift mirage of a King who confuses his crown with a halo.
Yet like Shakespeare, who intemperately gave nearly all the poetry to the irresponsible monarch, Doran leaves us with ambiguity. An unexpected great creak of stage machinery, a prison pathos, a sudden compassion for deluded Rutland, and the weather changes, subtly. When Bolingbroke embarks on his gruff pilgrimage of repentance, the choir and trumpeters high overhead soar and yearn at the end of Paul Englishby’s score and we get a final white-gowned dazzle from the ghost Richard overhead.