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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Barbican


  Nigel Lindsay and David Tennant/ Ph: Kwame Lestrade

"It is certainly easier to make a big hit with the other Richard," declared one scholar. The other Richard, of course, being Richard III, the murderous hunchbacked monarch whose dubious morals have inspired Olivier, Sher, McKellen and Spacey, among others, to give career-defining performances. Weak, ineffective and narcissistic, Richard II hardly ranks on the Richter scale in terms either of power or charisma. All this makes him a counter-intuitive choice for an actor. So who better to play him than David Tennant?
Tennant has proven throughout his career that he can refract expectations so that a decision that initially seems absurd is revealed as inspired. As a scrawny young man with middling looks, he proved a dazzling Casanova in Russell T Davies' television series. When he took on the role of Hamlet in his last starring role for the RSC, he played it for laughs. It was an extraordinary performance - the manic edge that his humour brought made even clearer the desolation of the soul that propels the play to its bloody conclusion.
Now he has proven that it is possible to make the "other" Richard every bit as impactful as his nephew-murdering counterpart. Many critical comments have already focused on his luxuriant shampoo-ad style locks, but in fact it is the way that Tennant uses his voice that is most arresting. His intonation leaps constantly upward, as if he is trying to defy gravity in every sense. His consonants are declaimed so languidly that often it seems he is about to subside into a lisp, while his narcissistically idiosyncratic pronunciations (for instance, "incision" is pronounced in-ci-see-on) often provokes laughter from the audience.
The effect – as he wafts around the stage – is to make the audience realise that though he is a weak leader, his strident sense of entitlement is enhanced by a self-aggrandising theatricality. The imagery of the mirror dominates Richard II, and Tennant makes it seem as if he is so transfixed by the reflection of his "performance" as king, that it eclipses all the political problems around him. Gregory Doran's production – his first since becoming RSC artistic director – also tweaks the text so that Richard's relationship with Oliver Rix's Duke of Aumerle becomes more overtly homosexual through a kiss on the lips. This has the added effect of making the text directly echo Marlowe's Edward II, which has often been cited as an influence. The parallel is further enforced by the fact that – as in Joe Hill-Gibbins production of Marlowe's work earlier this year at the National – the king's assassin is finally revealed in a devastating emotional punch as his lover.


This intellectually bracing production does not just mark Doran's first production since becoming RSC director but the start of a new collaborative relationship between the RSC and the Barbican. On its transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Stephen Brimson Lewis' design sits magnificently on the Barbican stage, from the cathedral pillars projected onto silken threads at the start to Richard's sombrely reflected prison cell at the end. Tennant's mesmerisingly delusional performance is beautifully complemented by the performances of those all too aware of the consequences of Richard's fecklessness, whether it's Michael Pennington's John of Gaunt, all gravitas and fury, or Jane Lapotaire's savagely denunciatory Duchess of Gloucester. The play itself may depict a reign crippled by bad leadership and internal wrangling, but in terms of the RSC the production marks a confident and extremely exciting new chapter.


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