Review: Richard The Second

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Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford on Avon

Until 16th Nov


It wasn’t a simple knock-off to write of the de-throning of a monarch when Shakespeare produced Richard The Second sometime in the mid-1590’s. You basically had to watch your back.

You weren’t so much reciting history or pleasing the crowds as commenting on the the present ruler and her royal minions. It could end  badly. So any writer worth his quill coated the story so he could, well, be around for the second act. They were tough times.

Indeed, the Earl of Essex paid Shakespeare to present Richard the Second the night before  a proposed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in order to spark an uprising. The playwright was thrown in front of a Star Chamber for this  but let off after what must have been the performance of his life.

So you have a play of political dynamite here. But it is also a play about inner turmoil as actor David Tennant’s Richard- fey, cunning, vain with his beautiful robes and his silver painted fingernails – is usurped by tough guy Henry Bolingbroke.

Tennant reveals how the de-throned king is transformed from a glittery piece of pomp with a rock ‘n roll hairstyle  to an imprisoned contemplative has-been clothed in a simple white martyr’s robe, wondering what he is, why he is and how he went from a public figure to a private man alone in a cell. There are some beautiful lines here- some of Shakespeare’s best- and Tennant delivers them with a wide eyed searching power.

His opponent, Henry, has the right to feel aggrieved having been banished and his inheritance stolen by the poppycock king. He’s played by Nigel Lindsay with gruff honesty, quick to anger but also smart enough to show mercy.

So it is hard to see these two men as Good Guy/Bad Guy. Shakespeare wrote in shades; possibly to keep safe and possibly to reveal, maybe for the first time on a London stage, how man thinks  rather than how he acts.

There’s a tremulous and brief appearance by actress Jane Lapotaire as the grieving and confused  widow, the Duchess of Gloucester, and a great performance by actor Oliver Ford Davies, recently seen at the RSC in Written on the Heart, as the vacillating and weak  Duke of York who has to change sides quickly and spinelessly to save his neck.

The production, visually arresting with its vertical nuances of grey set, does fiddle with the script. Richard is seen murdered in his cell, not by a bit player but by…well, I would be telling. It changes things a tad. But then again Shakespeare wasn’t averse either to dickering with the facts. It is, in the end,a great tale and one that stays with you.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Richard The Second

  1. Great review. I especially like the line about Shakespeare showing us how men think as well as how they act.

  2. Pingback: Richard II at the RSC | The Shakespeare blog

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