It is becoming an inadvertent tradition that Royal Shakespeare Company supremos set the seal on their appointment by directing all eight Wars of the Roses histories. Gregory Doran’s cycle may be disguised within the company’s six-year programme to stage every Shakespeare play, but it is there nonetheless, and gets off to an attention-grabbing start with David Tennant in the title role of Richard II.
It is an excellently clear production. National Theatre chief Nicholas Hytner, who has remarked that even he takes 10-15 minutes to tune into a Shakespeare drama, would have no problems with this opening-scene presentation of two courtiers accusing each other of treason and Richard failing to arbitrate. Tennant, however, strikes an unexpected figure on his first appearance: in flowing robes, with hair halfway down his back and an unusually precise accent, he seems rather like King Elrond. But this is the starting point of a journey to prime Tennant territory.
This Richard is at first casually heartless, light in manner but not in his conduct; then, the moment that Henry Bolingbroke’s revolt appears to have a chance of success, Richard’s inner house of cards instantly collapses and he begins to speak “fondly, like a frantic man” – that is, he raves with paranoid, self-pitying bitterness. (Elvish has left the building.) This Richard does not cow Bolingbroke with dense musings on divine right; he gibbers petulantly, not even attaining true tragic grandeur during his final imprisonment. Tennant’s gift is to unravel such knots of language.
The rest of the principal cast is correspondingly heavyweight. Nigel Lindsay’s Bolingroke (who becomes Henry IV) is a dignified bruiser; early on, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester give a masterclass in history-play acting, and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York is consummate throughout at showing us every detail of character and language alike.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set design is a little excessive: at different points Richard is flown in on a castle rampart and emerges from a dungeon trapdoor virtually the full size of the RSC stage. But this does not get in the way of Doran’s staging, which even injects a note of homoeroticism rendered poignant by subsequent treachery. It is all more than enough to dispel any jaded seen-it-all-before sensation regarding the histories to come.