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Richard II (Barbican)

David Tennant doesn't quite take the crown as Gregory Doran's production transfers to the Barbican

By • London
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Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbrooke) and David Tennant (Richard II)
Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbrooke) and David Tennant (Richard II)

It's been 11 years since the RSC quit the Barbican, 11 years without a permanent London home for one of our premier companies. Let's hope a new three-year partnership could herald the start of something permanent.

The RSC has picked a major event for its homecoming production – the return of David Tennant in a major Shakespearean role. While he gives an excellent performance as the wretched Richard, it's not a standout one – not that that prevented a standing ovation at the end.

The Barbican is not the most inspiring of venues but the large stage is used to some advantage here by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis. Richard is frequently placed on high, taking the notion of a base court rather literally. But the vast expanse also helps the electronic backdrops.

What I find most troubling about Gregory Doran's production is the harsh contrast between Tennant's sensitive, almost androgynous Richard and Nigel Lindsay's blunt and brusque Bolingbroke. These, after all, are cousins brought up within the confines of aristocratic England, yet Bolingbroke's aggressive stature is more redolent of an east London pub; you half-expect his father to lay a restraining arm on him after he confronts the king – "Leave him, Harry, he's not worth it."

What's strange is that Bolingbroke is clearly favoured by the court; his appearance at the lists is met by applause and he's greeted effusively by the king, while Mowbray is ignored. Surely, this aggressive troublesome lord would be recognised as trouble by the court and not fawned upon?

The contrast between Richard and Bolingbroke is immense. They're even introduced by different musical themes; Bolingbroke by a martial blast of trumpets, while Richard is serenaded by a trio of female singers. It's too crude a stereotype. Tennant plays up to this image - his barefooted penitence after his deposition smacks of overkill. Of course, a central thesis of the play is that Richard is the anointed king, Christ's chosen one, but it's all laid on a bit thick.

But then there are the numerous moments of lightness, such as, when Bolingbroke says "The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy'd/The shadow or your face." When Tennant replies in complete incomprehension: "Say that again" – for a moment, he's Dr Who again. It's a flash of humour that lights up one of the more solemn scenes. And there are many of these, notably from Oliver Ford Davies who steals just about every scene he's in, as a sardonic York. Michael Pennington is an excellent John of Gaunt, even if he does look rather robust at the jousting scene, as if he were ready to overthrow Richard himself; while Oliver Rix's youthful appearance as Aumerle belies his slippery demeanour.

This is a beautifully clear rendition of Shakespeare's most poetic play: the verse is superbly handled with some judicially sprinkled comic touches, but while there are some superb central performances, it never quite gets to the heart of the central question of what it means to be a king.

Read our review from this production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon

Tags: RSCRichard IIDavid TennantGregory DoranBarbicanNigel Lindsay


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