David Tennant’s starring role in this Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Richard II will no doubt be a draw for many theatre-goers but it would be doing the production a great disservice to suggest that its success (it has already received glowing reviews from its staging in Stratford Upon Avon) lies in the “star effect”. It is, quite simply, brilliant anyway.
Tennant is a natural focal point and, as the title character, rightly so. Gaunt, waif-like, self-righteous and whimsical this is no battle-ready King. His unwieldy swordplay is almost laughable and when he commits, it is to martyrdom and self-pity. Is he likeable? Not particularly. But he is pitiable, and that is key. He is neither a straightforward hero nor outright villain, and Tennant toes that line with great precision.
Nigel Lindsay cuts a powerful figure as Henry Bolingbroke - the polar opposite to Tennant’s Richard. Bolingbroke is strong, defined, determined - a man who plants his feet and clenches his jaw to stoically receive the philosophical ramblings of Richard as he drifts around the stage in various bouts of self-righteousness and distress.
Michael Pennington gives a ferocious and heartfelt performance as John of Gaunt, but Oliver Ford Davies really stands out as the Duke of York. Providing balance and humour in all the right places, he is an emotional stronghold in an ever-shifting sea of allegiances. He is also a key part in one of the most successful scenes, where together with his wife the Duchess of York (Marty Cruikshank) and his son the Duke of Aumerle (Oliver Rix) they fill the auditorium with belly laughs at their portrayal of archetypal familial division.
Dynamic yet not overused, the set is the key to some magnificent staging moments. A descending metal balcony is a real triumph, setting up beautiful tableaus that impart key messages in a purely visual way. Tennant delicate, painted gold, untouchable as he stands high above his leather-clad traitors. Then covered only in a white shift, mere man again, quivering as his enemies stand over him on the floor. And finally up high once more, arms spread, long hair flowing, a clear Christ-like figure post-death.
It is a production that grows in strength as its characters weaken and fragment, leading to an emotional and well executed ending. “We look forward to seeing you again” artistic director Gregory Doran writes in the programme. It may be somewhat presumptuous, but it is not misplaced - we want to see it again already.
Please note that Richard II is currently sold out, but day tickets are available online or in person from the Barbican Box Office (you'll need to be quick!). Richard II is at the Barbican until 25 January 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary review ticket.