A trio of sopranos heralded the return to the RSC of David Tennant to wear the hollow crown in Gregory Doran’s history opener, Richard II.
The company’s new artistic director couldn’t have made a better choice of leading man or of play to herald in the start of a run that will include, in 2014, a pair of Henrys and, for the next six years, every one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Tennant makes a model Richard. Booted and suited in gold or blue brocade, he is every inch the fashion plate – right down to his gold varnished fingernails and long flowing locks that deserved a programme mention all of their own (is someone employed as wig wrangler I wonder?). The crown seems a little on the big side but in everything else he is divine.
This is a royal who believes that he was anointed by god to lead the people. He looks like a Dolce and Gabbana model and parades around the roomy stage like a Messiah. Considering the former Hamlet’s unprecedented stage success in recent years, who else could play him?
But, for all his splendour, Richard doesn’t evoke much sympathy, even in the manner of his death. He’s indifferent to his people; lacks any leadership skills or a backbone. When things get tough, there’s only one thing to do and that’s surrender.
It doesn’t help that his nemesis is everything he isn’t. At the heart of this story is a battle for the throne which pitches the weak and effete king against a thuggish soldier, his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.
The story opens with the death of one of their uncles, the Duke of Gloucester. His widow weeps and drapes herself over his coffin as three heavenly angels sing from the rafters, but Richard, pointedly, affects an air of utter disdain.
Later it’s replaced by bored indifference as Bolingbroke accuses another nobleman of having a hand in the Duke’s departing. Unwilling to have anyone look too closely into the death, Richard steps in and commutes a possible death sentence for one man into banishment for both.
Bolingbroke isn’t prepared to stay away long, particularly as Richard has stolen his wealth, lands and titles, and driven his father, John of Gaunt (Michael Pennington in a storming cameo) into an early grave.
Richard is incapable of uttering the name of his foe without it being accompanied by a torrent of bile and spittle (actually, there’s quite a lot of it flying around from all members of the ensemble for those unfortunate enough to sit in the front row).
In the early scenes Tenant’s king is often found on a high dais, surrounded by sycophants, aloof and removed from his countrymen.
When he does descend, his hair sweeps behind him occasionally proving more of an irritant than an asset as it tangles itself in his crown. It sheds itself around the stage, strands attaching themselves to other actors, costumes and props. I can see him ending up with a shiny pate by the end of the run.
But Richard is a maelstrom of emotions and the actor captures each with a flick of the barnet, a piercing scowl, girlish hysteria or exhausted resignation as he realises that he has nothing left to barter with but his life. Towards the end he wanders about barefoot and dressed in a white, muslin, full-length robe and crucifix, absolutely rocking the god-on-earth look.
There are moments of levity - when the nobles bicker among themselves and challenge each other to duels - but this is largely a sweeping canvas that chronicles a massive change in the history and royal succession of our nation.
Nigel Lindsay has gone straight from a cosy comedy about Luton at the Donmar into the armour and nobility of hero soldier Bolingbroke and he looks right at home swinging an enormous sword about the place. In contrast to the rarefied air breathed by Richard, here is a man more used to the sweat and dirt of the battlefield. Neither understands the other’s motivation.
Oliver Ford Davies is always the person to call if you want an actor adept at appearing to have the weight of the universe on his shoulders. As another uncle – the Duke of York – he unsuccessfully tries to be confidante and saviour to Richard.
There’s a smashing cameo from Marty Cruickshank as his nagging wife. York shops his son for plotting to kill the new King Henry only for his wife to intervene and plead for clemency. Bolingbroke finds himself at the epicentre of a lively domestic as they tussle over the future of their boy.
Richard II makes fascinating viewing and Gregory Doran’s production, which expertly mixes traditional costume with an imaginative high tech set, will appeal to a wide audience.
It runs at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon until November 16. There’s a special screening live into cinemas on November 13 and a schools screening two days later.
It then transfers to the Barbican Theatre, running from December 9 until January 25.