I said that I am not going to post a ‘review’ of Richard II, which opened to a wonderful reception last night in Stratford-upon-Avon (with live cinema broadcasts on and after 13 November). And I’m not. Nor am I going to answer the question, is this the best Richard II you’ve ever seen? Deborah Warner’s National Theatre production with Fiona Shaw (which we helped translate to BBC2) was extraordinary. So too was Steven Pimlott’s RSC staging with Sam West. I am also a fan, albeit a cautious one, of Rupert Goold’s television film with Ben Whishaw for The Hollow Crown. But having now seen Greg Doran’s production with David Tennant three times, plus a run-through in the rehearsal room, I am prepared to offer a brief and not in any sense complete list of ten things that I really really like about the production – and as you read the thoughts of others they might give you a sense of why I am excited.
1. The ‘look’: this Richard II is gorgeous, and its beauty is achieved by designer Stephen Brimson Lews and lighting designer Tim Mitchell with the simplest (or so it seems) effects. There is almost no scenery or furniture, just walls of hanging chains onto which are projected glass slides – plus of course an elaborate bridge and a dungeon carved out of the stage. And all of these are controlled by technology of considerable complexity. Yet what comes across is light and easy and fluid and… beautiful.
2. The costumes: with light (and music) doing so much (and yet at the same time so little) the apparel (again designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis) comes to the fore in a fascinating way. The robes and armour are gorgeous too, but they all contribute brilliantly to the definition of the characters, their status and their (sometimes delusional) self-image.
3. The centrality of Aumerle: director Greg Doran has cut the text with his expected intelligence and theatrical sense, but he has also brought to the fore the usually marginal character of the king’s cousin and son to the Duke of York, Aumerle. The relationship of Aumerle to Richard, from love to betrayal, is one of the most fascinating strands in the production.
4. The humour: just as Doran and Tennant did with Hamlet, they and the whole cast have found the laughs in this tragic tale, in Richard’s off-handedness but also, brilliantly, in Oliver Ford Davies’ perpetually troubled York.
5. The music by Paul Englishby: three sopranos, three trumpets, percussion and keyboards, all live – and a whole musical universe, now available on CD and as a download.
6. The clarity: much as with the RSC’s recent All’s Well That Ends Well directed by Nancy Meckler, this is a staging in which the plot, the characters, the motivations are crystalline when they need to be and satisfyingly ambiguous as appropriate.
7. The matchless ensemble: Jane Lapotaire, Michael Pennington, Oliver Ford Davies and Nigel Lindsay, but also terrific actors such as Antony Byrne and Sean Chapman,and a host of rising stars, including Oliver Rix and Emma Hamilton.
8. The great speech of John of Gaunt: invidious as it is to, you know, highlight any particular performance, but Michael Pennington’s crazed yet lucid ‘this sceptr’d isle’ is revelatory.
9. The performance by David Tennant: occasionally you see a production in which there is an actor who commands your eye at every moment – not in a selfish way, but simply through their charisma. I remember Vanessa Redgrave in The Lady from the Sea long ago in a Manchester Royal Exchange production, and I remember Kevin Spacey at the Almeida in The Iceman Cometh… and I will remember David Tennant in Stratford.
10. The verse, the verse, the verse: this is a great GREAT play and the language is, simply, incomparable.