4 January 2014

Richard II at the Barbican

Richard II at the Barbican was always going to be a special event with David Tennant in the title role, and so it proved to be.

I had seen Tennant in Shakespeare before, in the much lighter Much Ado About Nothing, and I knew that he had done a lot of work with the RSC so I had high hopes for his acting.

Not that this was by any means a production that relied solely on its star, unlike the limp versions by Michael Grandage that I witnessed recently (A Midsummer Night's Dream and Henry V).

This was apparent from the beginning from my lofty seat in the Upper Circle with the stage impressively set as a Gothic cathedral.

And the opening was brilliant too. The funeral we were about to witness was introduced with period music from three female singers and a small group of musicians performing from the two raised platforms on each side of the stage. The opening tune piece lasted for a few minutes and music was recurring theme in the performance.

I had not seen Richard II before and the brief research that I did on the historical characters was to read the introduction to the article on Wikipedia on my phone just before it started. I learnt that he became king at the age of 10 and I assumed that the story started with the death of his predecessor, so I was waiting for a young king to appear.

I was wrong.

This was the funeral of a Duke and Richard II was a grown man by then.

It was not just the age error that made me not recognise Tennant at first, it was also his appearance. The poster shows Tennant in modern dress with his familiar short brown and spiky hair but he played the role in what looked like a dress and had long blond hair that reached well below his shoulders.

Shakespeare's Richard II is a complex character who changes his mood from frivolity to seriousness, from despair to determination. I think that he is meant to be a baddie but it was hard not to feel sympathetic towards him, perhaps that was because of the way that Tennant played him.

While Henry V was all about fighting the French, Richard II fought most of his battles against English rebels, with a quick detour to Ireland, Schemes are hatched to depose Richard which he is powerless to fight as more and more people side with his cousin Bolingbroke. One of the nice things about not knowing much history is that the stories in historical plays are not spoiled.

David Tennant was superb but did not steal the show because there was so much good stuff going on around him. So much so that I'll probably go and see the sequel when it comes to the Barbican later this year.

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