Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Richard II Live, Royal Shakespeare Company, 13th November 2013.


To clap, or not to clap? That was the question posed by a triumphant David Tennant as he bowed deeply after this landmark broadcasting of Richard II into cinemas around the world. Some of my companions sitting in Grantham did, but then came the hush, as confusion reigned over the appropriate response. I see on the Internet that the same question hung over audiences in packed cinemas around the country.

I did clap, for quite a long time - involuntarily as it happens, as this daring event by the RSC deserved something more than mumbling approbations and shuffling feet. I mean, what a gloriously brass-necked thing for the Company to undertake - and what nerves shown by the cast, who could - really could - have cocked up the odd line, scene or indeed the whole event. That's the drama of live drama - and there's nothing quite like witnessing the vulnerable high wire acts required of Shakespeare in the flesh.

Richard II is a fine play about the assumption of power - in the sense of taking-it-for-granted - and the assumption of power in the sense of snatching it from one who already has it. Richard had been King of England since the age of ten, and Tennant's Richard is quite used to the trappings of wealth and favour, wafting from court to court with a snobbish disdain of mere terrestrial squabbles. This graceful arrogance hides the not inconsiderable qualities of the man, who is flawed and petulant - yes - but cultured and genuinely patriotic. Richard has an unshakable conviction in the divine right of kings to rule. However, ruling on a dispute between the macho Henry Bolingbroke and his rival Hereford, Richard oversteps himself when he banishes both from his domain. Bolingbroke's father, the old hero, John of Gaunt, pleads for his son, but Richard, in a flash of regal pique, merely extends his son's ban by a year.

Through this act, Richard alienates powerful courtiers, who sympathise with Bolingbroke, and  support his regrouping and return to England. Nigel Lindsay's Bolingbroke is a swaggering, brutish alpha male, who shows no real sympathy for the floundering King. Director Gregory Doran highlights Richard's bemusement and incomprehension as Bolingbroke's strength become irresistible. I felt genuinely sorry for Richard, as he drifted, rudderless, from crisis to crisis, resulting in a heartbreaking goodbye to his queen, played skilfully by Emma Hamilton.

This is a seriously heavyweight cast, and the performances were all characterised by depth and intelligence. Michael Pennington's John of Gaunt as a depressed shadow of his former self, was edgy and uneasy, especially in his "this scepter'd Isle" speech, which is widely misrepresented as a triumphalist rabble rouser, rather than a sad lament for a broken country. Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester is perhaps the story of the production, having not acted for years after a brain haemorrhage. Her one and only speech, right at the beginning, exposes the rotten roots of Richard's reign. The inclusion of this harsh soliloquy is an act of bravura by Shakespeare. Its delivery, by Jane Lapotaire, is an act of grace, courage and personal redemption.

From these stark, dank beginnings the play grows and engages, and during the second half, one is lost in the pain and bewilderment of a King who knows nothing but being King. His death comes as something of a relief for him, and leaves us facing another - arguably less able - man in his throne. At the end, the shadow of Richard hangs over him; as it has done all morning over me. I can't wait to see how Richard's nemesis, Bolingbroke - I mean Henry IV - gets on in the next broadcasting event by the RSC. If it's anything near as good as this, I will indeed clap at the end - and loudly.

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