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Michael Coveney: David Tennant opens as Richard on a night of crowds and surprises

Our chief critic reflects on a returning star and changing times in Stratford-upon-Avon

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David Tennant as Richard II

I don't know what sort of Richard the Second we were supposed to expect from David Tennant – he's not a "soft" actor, after all – but he certainly sprang a few surprises at Stratford-upon-Avon last night that shredded all previously held notions about a renegade royal or martyred monarch.

A sort of angry cynicism was at the root of it, something I've never associated with the role most famously occupied at Stratford by Ian Richardson (well, he was a good deal more priggish than some) and, in the original RSC Wars of the Roses cycle, David Warner. Warner was temperamentally ideal as both Richard II and, especially, Henry VI and it's probably the case that Tennant does at least share with him a gift for seeming out of place on the throne.

But he also makes something unexpectedly wilful of Richard, something truly bizarre, which won't disappoint the legion of Doctor Who fans who may well think of their hero adopting the guise of an unpopular monarch in a time-travelling adventure to the Middle Ages. The performance, which only plays for a few weeks in Stratford, is already heavily sold, and I doubt if a short season at the Barbican over Christmas will entirely slake the demand.

As if to rectify this obviously unsatisfactory situation, the RSC is streaming the production into nearly a thousand schools across the UK on Friday 15 November at 9.30am, with a back-up "live" discussion with director Gregory Doran, Tennant and other RSC members.

Last night, a new screen at the front of the theatre was already preparing for the event with some preliminary footage of the surrounding countryside visible from several hundred yards, as if to say "We're not just a theatre, you know, we do film, too." I'm not sure this is the right message to be sending.

I've heard several complaints from local landladies about the unavailability of tickets, and the shortness of the run; and if only the two Henry IV plays and Two Gents are available to visitors next spring, people will start to think twice about coming to Stratford at all. Mind you, Doran has said that he plans to do all 37 plays in the next six years, so he'll have to start cramming the seasons more fully very soon.

Aside from the screen at the front, I'm increasingly reconciled to the outside of the new theatre. The information screen, with play titles, dates and critics' ratings - why do I think "Five stars, Daily Mail," might put as many people off as draw them in? - does not seem too vulgar, and it makes a successful architectural link between the old frontage and the new viewing tower.

And the whole place was heaving last night, even if quite a few critics had sneaked into the last preview on the previous evening. There was a Q and A after the Swan's performance of Mark Ravenhill's new version of Candide and the actors were milling in the foyers and bars for the Richard after-show party at the top of the building.

One consequence of this was the swarm of security men all over the place, all dressed in black like bouncers at a seedy nightclub. The main foyer bar, in the old box office area, was sectioned off for a private party, making the exit of the crowds from the theatre inside doubly awkward and rather unpleasant. It's not an easy place to move around in, actually, at all.

Apart from the regular first-nighters, and the enthusiastic Tennant fans crammed to the top, the audience included Tom Sutcliffe and his Saturday Review team, Libby Purves launching her own review website, former Sunday Times critic John Peter, Ian Shuttleworth of the FT and Purves' successor on The Times, Dominic Maxwell, as well as his fellow Old Etonians Henry Hitchings of the Standard and Robert Gore-Langton for London Theatre News in New York.

The presence, too, of Sally Homer, quondam PR for the English Shakespeare Company set up by the two Michaels, Pennington (a superb John of Gaunt in Richard) and Bogdanov, reminded me of the pleasure I've been taking in reading Bogdanov's scurrilous and plain-speaking memoirs.

Bogdanov's book ends with a vituperative attack on John Peter, topped with a re-run of the famous article in which he said there was one critic he loathed even more than Peter, a critic so vile and unpredictable he should never be allowed to darken the inside of an auditorium ever again. Anywhere in the world. "That wasn't me, was it?" I joked to Sally at the interval. "Of course it was you; who else?" she replied, unnervingly. Oh dear. I do hope she was joking back.