David Tennant as Richard II @TheRSC – some thoughts

David-Tennant_2705271bI went to see Shakespeare’s Richard II in Stratford yesterday. David (Dr Who) Tennant was King Richard, but a very strong cast generally – Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, Nigel Lindsay as Henry Bolingbroke/Henry IV and Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester.

The reviews of this have been very positive. The two parts of Henry IV follow next year, and this is part of Gregory Doran’s plan to present the entire Shakespeare corpus over the next six years.

This is probably my favourite of Shakespeare’s history plays, and I’ve given two talks on it as part of the Shakespearean Territories project – in Nottingham and Corner Brook, Newfoundland (neither were recorded, unfortunately). In those talks and the draft material for the book I’m most interested the spatial and geographical aspects, such as banishment, pilgrimage, and return; and in the economic questions of land use and misuse that run through the play. Richard is accused of being England’s landlord, rather than King – with the appropriation of lands from John of Gaunt and others, turning them into resources to fund his Irish wars. As he says, ‘We are enforced to farm our royal realm’; and as Gaunt says in one of the play’s most powerful speeches, England ‘Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it – Like to a tenement or pelting farm’. This is a play filled with the language of soil, land, earth, and ground, but with a strong economic sense. There is a lot to be said about all these issues, which I hope to explore fully as I develop the argument.

But in the stage production I was more drawn to thinking about questions of political authority and sovereignty, the question of legitimacy and the rights of rulers and subjects. These are obviously crucial to the play, which is centred around the deposition of Richard, and is often equated to the threat to Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s own time.  The production was good on historical context – setting the opening scene more centrally in the wake of Gloucester’s death than does the script itself – but its resonances with issues today were also striking. Many of the reviews have noted how Tennant’s Richard assumes the majesty of his role only as he is deposed, but this is partly down to Shakespeare’s text. There is an economic aspect going on here, such as in the attempt at an exchange of the trappings of kingship for the meagre possessions of a religious man – ‘I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,/My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,/My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,/My figured goblets for a dish of wood’…

A beautifully written play, almost entirely in verse, and acted superbly. Tickets are almost unavailable for the Stratford and Barbican runs (though there are apparently a few left for the latter). It’s also being broadcast live to cinemas on November 13th.

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