Enjoying Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre‏

The following is a guest post.

There are three components that make a trip to the theatre either good or bad: the play itself, the direction, and the performance. The opening night performance of Richard II scored a 10 out of 10 on all counts.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings… 

(Act 3 scene 2)

The historical account of Richard’s life offers solid breeding ground for drama. Fatherless at nine, crowned at ten, widowed at twenty-seven, deposed at thirty-two, murdered at thirty-three… it’s a long litany of sad events for a short life.

Shakespeare, as always, plays a little fast and loose with the facts, but most of the key details are accurate. The writing of course is incredible; the speeches he penned for Richard, for John of Gaunt, and for the Duke of York bring these characters to life on the stage before you.

The stage before the beginning of Act I.And what a stage it is! The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is only three years old, and the building is state of the art. Greg Doran, the RSC’s new Artistic Director, used the theatre’s technical capabilities to their fullest. All of the set backdrops were projected, creating an amazing 3D feeling.

He also used the various levels of the stage with remarkable results. At one point, David Tennant was actually lowered from the top of the theatre on a bridge, so while the audience was looking at the main stage, he just… magically appeared above the action! And the second to last scene when Richard is murdered in prison was acted on the stage’s sub-level. The main stage floor flipped up to reveal him chained below us.

That use of elevation drew attention to the main action of the play: the deposing of a king. David Tennant played the title role to perfection. He portrayed the breadth of emotions Richard feels; from the first scenes, where he’s filled with vindictive triumph that all his enemies are falling, down to his final moments when all his friends have died or deserted him and he dies alone.

David Tennant as Richard IITennant’s mastery of the role was incredible. He went far beyond a simple rote recitation of the lines, and even surpassed the comprehension of subtext and history that all members of the RSC achieve. He somehow managed to get into the words and find the character within them.

From the moment he walked onto the stage, he owned it the way a king would—the way Richard would have. As he said in his first interview regarding the part, Richard isn’t really a hero  but Tennant made him human.

Tennant didn’t shy away from Richard’s poor decisions, but he also showed other things that displayed the king’s heart. The most notable moment for me was when he learned Bolingbroke had beheaded his friends. The grief on his face at that moment, the gut punch, was heart-wrenching.

I already have plans to see the play again when it’s streamed as part of the RSC Live this winter. Additionally, I loved Doran’s treatment of a history play so much that I’ve purchased tickets for Henry IV 1&2 in Stratford-Upon-Avon this spring. Yes, I’ve been back in the US for under a week and I already have plans to return.

If you can’t make it to London this winter to see Richard II at the Barbican, I encourage you to find a cinema near you that’s taking part in RSC Live. It’s truly a performance worth watching.

Nancy Kelley is a Britophile, blogger, and author of Jane Austen sequels. She has two cats instead of a metal dog, but she does believe that if you are ever passed out from regeneration sickness (or any other ailment, such as work) tea is all you need – it’s just the thing for healing the synapses. You can find Nancy at her blog www.nancykelleywrites.com. Read more of her posts here.