Richard II at the Barbican theatre

Published December 13, 2013

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.

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