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Richard II Press Reviews (Stratford-upon-Avon)

The Independent


They covered themselves in glory five years ago with Hamlet; now David Tennant and Gregory Doran join forces again for this lucid and gripping account of Richard II. Having played the most intellectually searching of Shakespeare's protagonists, who is painfully miscast as a revenge hero, Tennant – in splendid form here – trains his talents on the most self-absorbed and inward-looking of the Bard's monarchs, who is fatally miscast as God's anointed deputy on earth.

In his gorgeous, gold-embroidered robes (and long, flowing hair extensions, to boot), this Richard is wrapped in the mystique of medieval majesty. But he occupies the Gothic throne with a slouch of disgruntlement, his features congealed in disdain. Admirably resisting any temptation to make the king likeable, Tennant vividly exudes the bored irritability that erupts in tyrannical caprice. And impatience is making him reckless, too. In this production, he brazenly hears the dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray at the (interpolated) ceremonial lying-in-state of the Duke of Gloucester, whose murky murder (and, implicitly, Richard's involvement in it) is itself the bone of contention.

But then Richard is a monarch who would always choose theatrical effect over political prudence. With his great gift for playfulness, Tennant runs heavily sarcastic rings round his usurper in the deposition scene. Holding the crown at arm's length, and with his back to the assembled company, he calls out "Here cousin", in the tones of someone inviting a dog to play fetch. This is not a Richard who luxuriates in the lyricism of grief. Tennant delivers the plaintive, self-pitying arias with a scathing irony for the most part, flecked by tiny surrenders to abject panic – as though he were at once sufferer and observer of the tragic process whereby, when the royal persona shatters, it exposes the naked, insecure person underneath. 

By contrast, Nigel Lindsay's Bolingbroke presents himself as a plain-speaking bloke who has returned from exile solely to claim his rightful inheritance – though there's a suggestion in his hooded watchfulness and the brutality with which he dispatches Richard's flatterers that he has a devious, long-term strategy. He plays his cards close to his chest and is embarrassed by Richard, whose upstaging antics leave him having to force face-saving laughter in front of his followers.

Interestingly, though, Doran is more interested in the king's relationship with his other cousin, the young Aumerle. I should perhaps issue a spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph. This production gives the pair a charged, private sequence on the walls of Flint Castle (evoked by the mobile gantry that slices across Stephen Brimson Lewis's excellent design). The monarch's speech of speculative capitulation ("What must the King do now? Must he submit?") reduces his devoted number one supporter to such heartfelt, quiet tears that Tennant's Richard is touched to a moment of rare compassion for another creature – treating his cousin to a tenderly passionate kiss and a cradling on his breast. But Aumerle, whose riven emotional state is beautifully conveyed by Oliver Rix, turns into the production's most extreme casualty of the world of divided loyalties. Shopped to the new king by his own father for his treacherous plots, to what desperate lengths might such a man go to prove that he's been born again politically? 

There isn't a weak link in the cast. Ferocious eloquence overcomes deathbed infirmity in Michael Pennington's superb portrayal of John of Gaunt, and Oliver Ford Davies gives a fine edge of grumpy comedy to the Duke of York's conscience-stricken dithering. Another palpable hit for the Tennant/Doran collaboration, the production transfers to the Barbican in December and will be broadcast live in cinemas on 13 November.


The Guardian


This show marks the start of Gregory Doran's six-year plan to present the entire Shakespeare canon. It's fair to say that his own beautifully crafted, richly detailed production sets a high standard for himself and others to aim at. David Tennant, in a mesmerising performance that grows in power as Richard's authority declines, also reminds us that the Royal Shakespeare Company is an ensemble that paradoxically needs stars.

It's a sign of Doran's care that he makes clear the complex back-story that illuminates Shakespeare's play. An audience needs to know that Richard's original sin lies in sanctioning the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Michael Boyd began his 2007 production by having Richard stepping lightly over the corpse of the dead duke. Doran, even before Richard's entry, shows us elaborate funeral rites with three sopranos singing religious anthems in the upper galleries and the Duchess of Gloucester bent in grief over her husband's tomb. This is clearly a court steeped in mourning.

The prelude also gives Tennant a vital context in which to work. His Richard, with his brocade gown and Christ-like hair, initially affects an air of listless boredom as his burly barons hurl accusations of treason at each other. But there's a thrilling moment when Tennant gives the banished Mowbray a piercing stare as if daring him to spill the beans about the king's part in Gloucester's murder. Tennant combines inner guilt with a careless disregard for realpolitik as he seizes the land and goods of John of Gaunt after his death: a point reinforced here by the fact that we see tuns of treasure being bodily transported.

Tennant's strengths, as we know from his Hamlet, are a capacity for quicksilver thought and an almost boyish vulnerability. And, even if he might do more to convey the patterned lyricism of the language, what he brings out excellently is the fact that Richard only learns to value kingship after he has lost it. In his decline, Tennant casually tosses the crown away and, at one point, skittishly places it on the head of his adored Aumerle. But in the Westminster deposition scene, where Tennant is at his best, he challenges Bolingbroke to "seize the crown" and, when his rival rises to the bait, immediately inverts it to suggest a falling bucket. Tennant's great achievement is to attract our sympathy to what the gardener calls a "wasteful king" who abuses power when he has it and who achieves tragic dignity only in his downfall.

But this production, which combines period costumes with back-projections in Stephen Brimson Lewis's elegant design, is emphatically no one-man show. Nigel Lindsay's Bolingbroke is a palpably dangerous figure who treats Richard's remission of his initial banishment with surly disdain and openly scorns the deposed king's self-conscious theatricality. It is also good to see a number of RSC veterans operating at top form in key roles.

Oliver Ford Davies is brilliant as the Duke of York in that he highlights both the comedy and pathos of a man torn between ancestral loyalty to the crown and a recognition of Bolingbroke's power. Michael Pennington's John of Gaunt is also a fine study of a dying man bursting with intemperate rage at Richard's betrayal of his country. And Jane Lapotaire turns the Duchess of Gloucester into a silver-haired figure whose widowed grief manifests itself in a burning appetite for revenge.

The packed houses for this production's run in both Stratford and at the Barbican may have much to do with Tennant's star presence. But this is the strongest company the RSC has fielded in years, and what Doran's production brings out is the rich complexity of a play that raises the eternal question of at what point it becomes legitimate to unseat a manifestly flawed ruler. Shakespeare's play may be set in 14th-century England. It remains, however, a timelessly political work.


The Telegraph 

Five years after his spellbinding Hamlet, David Tennant is back at the RSC and reunited with director (now artistic director) Gregory Doran for Richard II. Last time round there was a lot of hoo-ha about Doctor Who and a box-office frenzy. Maybe there'll be more of that again, with Tennant joining Matt Smith for the 50th anniversary special next month. But for the moment, a calm air of focus prevails; Tennant, 42, is in his natural element – and day tickets are available.

His hair takes some getting used to: great gingery-brown extensions trail girlishly downwards. Long, magisterial, quasi-medieval robes add to the effeminate impression. In Act III, at Flint Castle, beset by ruin, this Richard leans close and kisses his cousin Aumerle (the youthful, boyish Oliver Rix) on the lips. As with Hamlet, so with Richard – there's an identity crisis at play ("remember who you are", Aumerle counsels, as if that were possible), but here it's of a sexual nature too. And in a further directorial flourish, Doran makes Aumerle the last face the imprisoned, ousted monarch sees, plunging the dagger into him.

Overall, though, this production is more reverent than radical. Doran has suggested he will work slowly, steadily, through the canon – and the first scene especially, in which Nigel Lindsay's tough, gruff, almost too-too solid Bolingbroke squares up to Antony Byrne's aggrieved Mowbray – each accusing the other of treason – feels slow and steady to a fault. Richard's reign, some 20 years in at this stage (1398), was in severe trouble. Thanks to an emphasised aura of restraint – signalled by a stark, simple set from Stephen Brimson Lewis, augmented by subtle projections on towering screens – you don't get much sense of the hurly-burly of this chapter of history or of events spinning wildly out of the king's weakening control.

With his startled eyes and concentrated frown, Tennant is frail, pale and consistently interesting but the nervous energy he excels in is confined to quarters early on. Trumpets sound, sopranos trill sacred music as if wafting incense; the king is embalmed in ceremony, cloaked in remoteness.

It's the older hands who galvanise proceedings with emotional intensity in the first half. A quivering Jane Lapotaire as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, spilling over with unconfined grief, that perpetually stooped, hangdog actor Oliver Ford Davies as the fretful Duke of York and Michael Pennington, little short of magnificent as John of Gaunt – lending febrile and ferocious emphasis to his "This sceptr'd isle" speech and to those last-gasp accusations against Richard.

The evening is always lucid but only truly crystalises as things fall apart. Richard spasms with panic as he grasps the frailty of existence, crawling on the floor in abjection. He's appealingly sardonic as he bows in exaggeration before his usurper, and at the end, having taken on the aspect of Christ, he appears aloft on a gantry, looking down in beatific accusation as Bolingbroke contemplates the blood on his hands. Tennant shines, but he has shone brighter.

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