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Richard II Presee Reviews (Barbican)


The Mirrors 
It's surprising enough to see such a familiar figure as Tennant sporting a head of long flowing locks.

For legions of Doctor Who fans he will forever be remembered as the boisterous inhabitant of the TARDIS complete with fitted pinstripe suit, long trenchcoat and a trademark quiff.

But as Richard II he makes a stunning transformation into a flawed 14th Century monarch.

There are still tiny flashes of his cheeky persona in the odd scene, and when they appear they usually have the audience laughing.

But Tennant's performance is magnificent because, most of the time, he strikes a convincing balance of pomposity and menace - two characteristics we least associate with this actor.

This king is also slightly camp and, at times, effeminate, but in a heartbeat he can also be unscrupulous and terrifying.

Yet while the audience start off hating him then, by the end of the play they feel nothing but pity for the deposed leader.

Richard II is a ruler who makes bad decisions based on bad advice from those he considers peers.

His biggest mistake comes early on when he banishes his royal cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who is played by an equally impressive Nigel Lindsay.

Inevitably, he eventually returns from exile to claim the throne as his own.

All of which may sound like a tale of political intrigue which will intrigue no one except Shakespeare fans, but Tennant makes this tragedy captivating viewing for everyone.

First rate productions and superb supporting casts like this turn the Bard's plays into something altogether more exciting.

But this version of Richard II also sees Tennant become a true star of the stage, as well as our TV screens.

Barbican, to January 25.



The Londonist
David Tennant's starring role in this Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Richard II will no doubt be a draw for many theatre-goers but it would be doing the production a great disservice to suggest that its success (it has already received glowing reviews from its staging in Stratford Upon Avon) lies in the "star effect". It is, quite simply, brilliant anyway.

Tennant is a natural focal point and, as the title character, rightly so. Gaunt, waif-like, self-righteous and whimsical this is no battle-ready King. His unwieldy swordplay is almost laughable and when he commits, it is to martyrdom and self-pity. Is he likeable? Not particularly. But he is pitiable, and that is key. He is neither a straightforward hero nor outright villain, and Tennant toes that line with great precision.

Nigel Lindsay cuts a powerful figure as Henry Bolingbroke – the polar opposite to Tennant's Richard. Bolingbroke is strong, defined, determined – a man who plants his feet and clenches his jaw to stoically receive the philosophical ramblings of Richard as he drifts around the stage in various bouts of self-righteousness and distress.

Michael Pennington gives a ferocious and heartfelt performance as John of Gaunt, but Oliver Ford Davies really stands out as the Duke of York. Providing balance and humour in all the right places, he is an emotional stronghold in an ever-shifting sea of allegiances. He is also a key part in one of the most successful scenes, where together with his wife the Duchess of York (Marty Cruikshank) and his son the Duke of Aumerle (Oliver Rix) they fill the auditorium with belly laughs at their portrayal of archetypal familial division.

Dynamic yet not overused, the set is the key to some magnificent staging moments. A descending metal balcony is a real triumph, setting up beautiful tableaus that impart key messages in a purely visual way. Tennant delicate, painted gold, untouchable as he stands high above his leather-clad traitors. Then covered only in a white shift, mere man again, quivering as his enemies stand over him on the floor. And finally up high once more, arms spread, long hair flowing, a clear Christ-like figure post-death.

It is a production that grows in strength as its characters weaken and fragment, leading to an emotional and well executed ending. "We look forward to seeing you again" artistic director Gregory Doran writes in the programme. It may be somewhat presumptuous, but it is not misplaced – we want to see it again already.

Official London Theatre
It is at least two hours into Gregory Doran's production before you get used to the hair. A cross-between Florence Welch and Jesus, this is David Tennant as you've never seen him before. And never will again, unless he goes the way of his Doctor Who successor and discovers his musical side in Jesus Christ Superstar.

For all the effort of his flowing red locks, it is not Tennant's appearance that gives the production its beauty. A projected backdrop of pillars and arches form the interior of a cathedral, a platform descends from the ceiling and sopranos sing from a balcony; every detail of Doran's immaculate production reflects the exquisite nature of the Bard's poetic history play.

The piece centres on the downfall of the vain king and opens to the mournful image of the Duke of Gloucester's funeral. Both Thomas Mowbray and the ruler are among those accused of his murder. But the king deals with the situation by banishing Mowbray and his accuser Henry Bolingbroke from England. Big mistake. Bolingbroke is back in no time with an army prepared to take down the fragile monarch.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has gathered a strong company of actors for what is the first production in Doran's mission to tackle the entire Shakespeare canon. From Olivier Ford Davies as the Duke of York there comes both wit and sadness, Nigel Lindsay brings menace and authority in the form of Bolingbroke and Michael Pennington gives a powerful portrayal of John of Gaunt as he lives out his final hours in defiance.

Then there is Tennant. While Richard's power diminishes, the actor only grows stronger, evoking the play's poetry through both the fluidity of his movements and the compelling nature of his speeches in which he takes every rhyming couplet and places it centre stage with effortless delivery.

There are times during the production that make you wonder why the first part of Shakespeare's tetralogy, which also includes Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V, the latter of which has been performed twice in London during the past 18 months, isn't a more regular sight on the London stage. The strength of its characters and the intricacies of its language mesmerises more than most of the Bard's works. But perhaps that is down to Doran's well-judged direction and the effortlessness of his faultless performers.

The Arts Desk
Richard II arrives in London after a highly successful Stratford run and while the glow of David Tennant's Hamlet resides still in the memory. Surprisingly, the pleasure of the production lies not so much in dazzle as solidity. This doesn't give a bold new reading but a robust interpretation; it is not a star vehicle (so often with the star surrounded by mediocre support) but one of the strongest company performances of Shakespeare that I've seen for many a year.

Though Richard II can easily be seen as a stand-alone play, it's actually the first of a tetralogy that includes the Henry IVs and Henry V, and director Gregory Doran works hard to put the play in that context. We have a firm sense of both the political turmoil that proceeds the action and the uncertainly of where it's headed. This is not just a warning about the ills that can befall a king who fails to responsibly manage his kingdom, it's also about the subtle contracts and traditions that hold a monarch in place; few plays show a crown taken with such trepidation.

It opens with a bold (in its length) and very pleasurable prelude: the stage is transformed into a cathedral, darkly majestic yet mournful, in which an elderly woman drapes herself over a coffin, long grey hair streaking her black gown, as a trio of sopranos sing from high above her. The woman is the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire), the dead man her husband, more than likely murdered on the orders of the king. Eventually the lights goes down and one, two, then a whole company enter the woman's grief. Thus Doran gives a clear impression of the historical back story, the malign actions of the king before this final chapter of his reign, which charts unfinished business between he and his noblemen.

That achieved, Tennant is let loose. Richard is a king pumped up, nay deluded by the belief that he has been chosen by God. And as he is called in to manage the dispute between two warring noblemen, Tennant's king really does seem to be descending from heaven – or, more accurately, another planet. With high-pitched, effete voice, decked out in white robes and cascading hair, cradling his sceptre in his arms, eyes distracted, he seems not to have got to grips with these pesky humans.

Yet this is more than simple flamboyance: the arrogance is comic, but also chilling, and sets Richard up perfectly for the later tumble back to Earth.

Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Mowbray (Antony Byrne) are accusing each other of treason, each most likely covering his own back in the unstable realm. Richard seems to waver, first counselling an amicable accord, then acceding to their desire for a duel, then reneging on this and banishing the pair of them; the final outcome is probably what he wanted all along.

In thrall to sycophantic playboy cronies, dismissive of his elder statesmen Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and York (Oliver Ford Davies), regarding the kingdom as a cash cow to fuel his reign, the cynical, cavorting king is headed for a fall. Stealing the exiled Bolingbroke's inheritance is the last straw for the exiled duke and sets up a confrontation between "God's gift" and the man of the people.

While Richard's aloofness from his subjects also, aptly, keeps him slightly removed from the audience, Tennant draws him vividly towards us as the king is brought to heel. The realisation that he has lost all support to the returning Bolingbroke – one of the great turnarounds in drama – is brilliantly conveyed; his subsequent, painful reluctance to physically hand over the crown to his vanquisher (while maintaining the verbal dexterity to run rings around him) is even better. Having made such an otherworldly arse of the man at the outset, the pathos Tennant now wrings from the character is all the more remarkable.

Around him, Lapotaire is a whirlwind of righteous grief, Pennington stirs in his dying condemnation of the "landlord" of the kingdom, and Ford Davies (Polonius opposite Tennant's Hamlet) is a joy as the conflicted York, twisted every which way by his sense of duty, loyalty, tradition and pragmatism. Byrne's Mowbray, Sean Chapman's no-nonsense Earl of Northumberland and Emma Hamilton's Queen all make strong impressions.

The one stumbling block for me was Lindsay, whose Bolingbroke seems a stolid presence amongst so much guile. Much of the nuance of the play – residing, unusually for Shakespeare, in what is not said – concerns the duke's awareness that to take the crown from an anointed king is sacrilegious; Lindsay captures the caution but not the calculation behind his character's ambition. The absence of an able foil for Richard, most felt in the climactic scenes, mars an otherwise fine production.

The Upcoming
The long-awaited transfer of the RSC's production of Shakespeare's Richard II starring David Tennant has arrived. And ultimately, to cut the small talk, it does not disappoint.

Opening with the most gracefully ephemeral three-woman soprano choir, the tone is set – distinctly grand and haunting even before the doors at the end of each aisle swing shut, 08737_show_landscape_02immersing you entirely in the first act. The set is equally as triumphant, with projections of Westminster Abbey-esque architecture on floor-to-ceiling columns made up of shimmering gold threads. Although sounding intricate and imposing it works rather simply, with only a descending metal balcony and projection variations to mark scene changes.

The title role of King Richard will be the most talked of, if only because everyone's favourite Scottish Doctor Who is playing him. David Tennant, having previously played the lead in RSC's Hamlet to much critical acclaim back in 2008, shines once again in his royal role. His pale, gaunt features are ensconced in floor length gowns and highlighted by wavy, waist-length brunette locks. He could be described as a better dressed yet slightly effeminate Jesus but to put it like this would be doing the thoroughness of the costume department a disfavour.

What comes as a slight surprise is just how great all the cast are in their roles. Perhaps because the major selling point of this production is Tennant perched on a throne with a staff, we expect this to be the overriding experience of the night.

Instead we see the supporting characters give Tennant a run for his money, proving that there is no such thing as a single "star of the show". Oliver Ford Davies and Marty Cruickshank, who play the Duke and Duchess of York, serve to heighten the emotional complexity of the play with some well-timed marital humour, along with displays of extreme desperation and parental determination. The director Gregory Doran states that Shakespeare's plays provide a "360 degree view of what it is to be human"; certainly the familial aspect of this is achieved by Davies and Cruickshank.

This production is the first to mark the new partnership between the Barbican and Stratford-upon-Avon's RSC, a partnership that will see all of Shakespeare's plays performed at least once in the next six years in locations around the country. Celebrating both the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 2014 and the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, Richard II aims to inspire its audiences to see more RSC work in the near future – and it certainly does just that.

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