The Barbican has been running a season entitled ‘King and Country‘ since 7 November last year – a set of Shakespeare’s history plays charting the tumultuous years that preceded, and set up, the Wars of the Roses (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V). They have been playing individually in almost reverse order, but are now being shown as several play cycles over consecutive days. Quite fortunately, some tickets for individual plays came on sale last week so a lucky few were able to grab the final available seats for Richard II.
This play has become one of my favourite works of Shakespeare of late. It tells the sad story of Richard of Bordeaux’s fall from grace and ultimate usurpation by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. The play deals with themes that were very current to the time in which Shakespeare wrote it: uncertainty of succession, threats of rebellion and plots against the monarch. Though, interestingly, Shakespeare paints Richard in quite a romantic & tragic light, making him a focus for sympathy more often than not – even when his crimes are brought to light, you can’t help but feel for him. In reality, Richard had been something of a tyrant. A boy-king raised to believe he was God’s representative on Earth, happy to do as he pleased. Perhaps Shakespeare realised the parallels between Richard II & Elizabeth I (the reigning monarch) and decided this angle would be safer? Who can say.
In David Tennant’s performance you get the best of both worlds. There are times where Richard is more of an antihero and his callous nature comes to the fore (the most prominent example being his reaction to the illness & death of John of Gaunt), but equally there are moments of such pure sadness that make your heart break. His age aside (Richard was 33 when he died, Tennant is 44), this is a role he was born to play. He has a youthfulness that suggests a young king, but his maturity actually comes in useful in portraying a man who had to grow up very quickly and in public (he had to deal with the Peasants’ Revolt when he was just 14). Tennant captures the essence of Richard, from his regality & capriciousness, to his wit & pathos.
He is supported by an equally fantastic cast, most notably Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York. His presence adds a level of gravitas, particularly in scenes of grief (such as following the death of his brother, John of Gaunt). That’s not to say he’s stone-faced the whole time; Ford Davies picks out the dry humour in his character and accentuates it to a point where you can be laughing out loud in the midst of very serious scenes. He, alongside Sam Marks as Aumerle & Sarah Parks as the Duchess, is especially funny – each pleads with Henry for their perception of justice. Treason is a heavy topic, but finding the ridiculousness in the way it plays out does provide a little light relief alongside the tragedy of Richard’s downfall.
This production has very little in the way of a set & props, and is all the richer for it. By doing this the words & story are allowed to shine, along with the actors performing. It highlights what is absolutely necessary to the story and doesn’t distract from what can be, at times, a complex set of affairs.
The visuals are exquisite. A screen is used to project either an image that’s important to the scene, or to provide a background (in lieu of a set); there are two that really stand out. The first is in Act 2, scene 4: “The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth”. A stunning picture of an orangey-red moon in the night sky is shown, adding to the drama that’s unfolding. The second is shown in several scenes, including those in Westminster Hall – it is a backdrop that creates the illusion of a large hall and, coupled with some great sound effects, does a really convincing job.
I also have to highlight Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, which is utterly superb. In particular during Act 3, scene 3 (outside Flint Castle). Richard is dressed in gold, being compared with the sun; the lighting really amplifies this, pushing the metaphors home but in a truly beautiful fashion. It is a breathtaking moment.
And, last but not least, Paul Englishby’s score. From the soft choral funeral music that opens the show, to the regal fanfares and urgent drumbeats – it is just the right amount to set the whole thing off, as well as add a sense of scale.
The King and Country series is a fantastic concept, dealing with perpetually relevant topics, and I feel privileged to have been in the audience for two of its performances. Long live the king!
My verdict? A faithful but original production of a timeless play, cleverly and lovingly brought to life for the London stage.
Richard II runs as part of the King and Country play cycles until 22 January 2016. The cycles are sold out, but day seats for individual performances are available for £10 from 10.30am on the morning of each performance.