David Tennant played time travelling extraterrestrial The Doctor as a sort of matey everybloke, so it’s a fun irony that in his second post-Whovian stage role he portrays historical figure Richard II like a fey alien. Indeed, at one point in Greg Doran’s production, Tennant’s elfin monarch literally descends from the skies in the sort of ‘Close Encounters’-style blaze of light that was forever denied to him by that stupid phone box.
His star turn anchors this RSC production of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’, which marks both the company’s long-anticipated return to its former London home, the Barbican, and the first show in the reign of new RSC boss Gregory Doran, who directs.
Of course, far from being ‘new’, Doran has been at the RSC since before many of Tennant’s fans were conceived, and this intelligent, lucid and atmospheric production is – in the best possible sense – the sort of thing you’d expect from him.
Taking the vaulting gothic majesty of Richard’s great project Westminster Abbey as a starting point, Doran and team have created a brooding world of echoing voices, rarefied gloom and cold choral song courtesy of a trio of sopranos. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s projection-based sets offer a tour around England’s castles, but we never truly leave the curdled grandeur of Westminster.
Tennant, then, is a striking Richard, an ethereal androgyne who commands the tough, masculine folk of his court with a dictator’s assurance. His flowing hair and robes emphasise his otherness but also bring out the hardness of his face and eyes – he is uglier and scarier than recent Richards’ Eddie Redmayne and Ben Whishaw.
This king is a man clearly damaged by his unshakeable belief in his own majesty – there is something ineffably odd about him as he strides through his palaces, distracted and detached, twitching or giggling as some courtier or other pleads impassionedly with him. Yet, as his mismanaged kingdom falls to Nigel Lindsay’s bluff, no-nonsense Bolingbroke, Tennant’s Richard seems equally at home spouting self-pitying rhetoric – his whole life is a performance that the actor proves curiously well-equipped to deal with.
So the star delivers, then, and so does the rest of the cast – Lindsay is great and old RSC hand Oliver Ford Davies impresses as a resignedly pragmatic York. It all runs like a dark dream, in fact, and in all honesty there were a couple of moments where I thought back wistfully to the National Theatre’s more dangerous and unpredictable production of Marlowe’s not dissimilar ‘Edward II’. But then again, I probably had wistful thoughts of the RSC during ‘Edward II’’s more perverse moments – this is a robust and haunting season opener, and a wonderfully assured way to say ‘Barbican, honey – we’re home’.
By Andrzej Lukowsk