David Tennant plays Richard II like a casual hippie

His thoroughly modern king may appeal to younger folk, but is a betrayal of Shakespeare's complexity

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

Richard II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon / Barbican Theatre, London, in rep until 16 November / 9 December to 25 January 2014

Gregory Doran, now in command at Stratford in succession to Sir Michael Boyd, launches his regime with Richard II, intending to stage the complete Shakespearean canon over the next six years, ‘making every play an event’. What’s really good is that the plays will also be seen on tour, in London, online and ‘live on screen in cinemas and classrooms nationwide’. It’s taken too long for the publically funded RSC to put live ‘streaming’ in place; Richard II, broadcast on 13 November, will be the first play so honoured.

With David Tennant in the title role this may already be a sell-out, but encore screenings are already planned in many cinemas. As Tennant has recently been a memorable RSC Hamlet, casting him as the introspective, poetical king was an obvious follow-up. The German director Claus Peymann is not alone in seeing Richard as ‘a Hamlet come to power’. This may be a little too glib, but it’s an idea worth chewing on.

Like it or not, you have to accept that a star like Tennant is going to dominate. This pulls two ways because, while it’s magic at the box office, it’s not overfriendly towards the ensemble principle Doran has inherited from Boyd. Nevertheless, you can’t do Richard II without someone pretty charismatic in the title role and Tennant undoubtedly measures up. His arrival on the Stratford stage is a rumbustious, disconcertingly breezy shock after Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance in last year’s BBC Hollow Crown Histories. With the advantage of being so often close to camera, Whishaw inhabited this most inward, self-communing role of all the History plays, holding you spellbound with its poetry.

Tennant, needing to command the live Stratford audience, chooses a very different approach. In the early scenes, clad in a long white shift and with a disastrously ropy wig, barely retained by his crown, tumbling down his back, he strides restlessly around the stage like a hippie wanting only to be off with his friends. Doran’s production stakes out a huge distance between the grey, sad sobriety of the elder courtiers Gaunt and York, the political jousting of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and Tennant’s impatient Richard. This impatience extends to rattling off the verse and treating it jokingly, even sneeringly, when he can.

Plainly the idea is to dethrone Richard as a misunderstood, saintly figure. But in playing up the unpleasant Richard of history, and the quirky irresponsibility of Shakespeare’s king — as in underlining his selfish glee at Gaunt’s demise and Bolingbroke’s exile —  Tennant makes him too casual and childish a figure. He treats his subjects to an unpleasantly modern kind of scornful disrespect, and although this will doubtless be in tune with younger folk coming to the play for the first time, it’s a betrayal of Shakespeare’s more complex coding of behaviour. The production sets up a quasi-medieval context but the impulsive informality of Tennant’s delivery can only be squared with Shakespeare’s lines by distorting them. So we have a thoroughly modern Richard — pretty much David Tennant playing David Tennant — at odds, unsurprisingly, with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan exploration of the divine claims of kingship, and of the morality of justifiable rebellion and deposition.

That matters can be otherwise is demonstrated by Doran’s seasoned Shakespeareans with great voices, not least Michael Pennington, who brilliantly lets you see both old Gaunt’s anger and his awareness of his own small part in England’s ‘shameful conquest of itself’. Jane Lapotaire, making a long-overdue return to Stratford, is quite superb as the grieving Duchess of Gloucester. Oliver Ford Davies’s fumbling, worrying way with York underlines the appalling equivocation of a character once perfectly dubbed ‘the first civil servant in our literature’. Between Richard and his breast-beating uncles stands the realpolitik of Sean Chapman’s Northumberland and Nigel Lindsay’s rather too stolid Bolingbroke.

It remains to add that nothing becomes Tennant’s Richard better than his fall. Appearing as though in Baroque opera like a golden Phaethon-like figure high on the battlements of Flint Castle, he strips off the finery to kiss away his kingship — and more lingeringly his friendship with Aumerle — before finally coming down to earth as the pitiable human figure who surrenders to the taciturn Bolingbroke. Through the play we’ve seen David Tennant, the fabulous natural comedian, tussling to reinvent himself in a great tragic role. Immobilised by chains in the prison scene, he at last breaks through to find unaffected power in simply living the poetry. If Tennant can carry something of this back into the earlier part of the play it will be all to the good. Less can be so very much more.

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  • Ginger Crawford

    He writes like a self-important stroppy sophomore.

    • Paul Savage

      Sophomore? Gee honey, if you don’t get your fanny in gear your grades are really gonna suck this semester, and pop will stop your allowance.

  • aruka

    Think the critic went to a different theatre, to see a different production with a different actor wearing a wig (DT wears exensions) and not the Amazing, glorious Richard II mise-en-scene of Greg Doran with an outstanding David Tennant. Next time he could try to go and see the right play – RSC Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in SUA with DT as Richard, but hurry up,last performance will be on Nov16th…sold out, but maybe there’s the possibility of one or two return tickets……..

    • mikewaller

      I think that if I reported his comments to my wife and her friend, who recently saw what they considered to be Tennant’s magical performance, it would be best if Carnegy never came back to Stratford again. Getting his little note book shoved up his fundamental orifice would be the least of his problems! [:-)]

  • LaraH2

    the problem with david tennant is no matter what role he is in, he always plays david tennant trying to act in the role. i know that is blasphemy to some but such is my opinion. his smile is calculated down the millisecond it should be there. much as julia roberts does. there is no real warmth to it. and don’t even get me started on his portrayal of doctor who because i am sure his fans will stand me up in front of a firing squad. so save your righteous anger and energy defending him and just accept some of us do not see david tennant the be all of actors.

    • Colonel Mustard

      I agree with you. He seems to be trending BBC flavour of the month, regularly appearing on the Radio Times cover, and well on his way to becoming a national treasure. I think his acting ability is overrated and formulaic, his projection poor and tending to ‘shrieky’ and as you say his range confined to the single performance of ‘David Tennant acting’.

      It is difficult to comprehend that a man of such unprepossessing presence, lack of charisma and weedy physique should have become so feted. Perhaps it speaks for our times.

      • LaraH2

        thank you!

  • Santa Gregori

    I agree. I thought the leading cast members were wonderful and outshone David Tennant,well,quite brightly actually.

  • anyfool

    Nevertheless, you can’t do Richard II without someone pretty charismatic in the title role and Tennant undoubtedly measures up.
    I see your measurement of charisma starts at a very low value.
    The man has the personality of a pin and radiates as much charm as Stadler and Waldorf in the Muppets, I think I overstated his charm in that comparision.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,–This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
    ― William Shakespeare, Richard II

    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Mihaela Pestritu

    I read the review…seen the play-granted,1 year late,since I`m nowhere near UK-I read the comments on it…and only one thing has been going through my mind the whole time-that is when my mind hasn`t been blown up by the brilliance of it.You self-important,snobbish,dusty,ignorant assholes!Nevermind that you just can`t call yourself a critic,when you mistake extensions for a wig,especially when Tennant appeared in oh so many interviews and shows wearing them during the making of the play,I can only wonder how in the world you MISSED THE DAMN THINGS ALTOGETHER!.To not be aware of that,shows exactly how much you give a damn about the stuff you`re dismissing,and how UNqualified you are to do so.But let us try and overlook that,only for the pure pleasure of chopping you into tiny thin pieces and feeding you to the worms.Give you a taste of your own dish,except this time it is served by someone actually AWARE of what they´re typing-I really am watching fascinated,for probably the 15th time,the play while doing so.That should be a new one for your sorry self.

    So Tennant is a hippie playing himself rather than Richard,disrespectful to Shakespeare and his “complex code of behavior”.Then by all means,so am I.And in that disrespectful note…DAFUQ you know about Shakespeare?Have you been anywhere near him when he skilfully painted in unmatched words his characters?Do you have some magical sort of label to tell you WHAT he thought about Richard?Was he a villain?Was he a genius?Misunderstood?Shallow?Brilliant?Exactly WHAT makes you the universally qualified entity in Shakespeare`s means and motivations?Do you realize that at the time they were written,his plays were not performed only in golden decorated,royal theaters,but mostly in dirty markets,where the most common peasant could throw rotten eggs at the actors if he felt the whole thing was not worthy of their time?That theater is in no way the exclusive property of some pretentious elite,but rather the entertainment of the masses?That once a Shakespearian actor,getting stuck there,thinking that anything else is below your “value”,is just about the worst mistake one can make?

    And how,just HOW you didn`t yet understand that the whole charm of theater,what keeps it fresh and alive,is reinventing itself over and over again,so much that reading the words written 400 BLOODY YEARS AGO can tell you a whole new story just because the actor and director were geniuses enough to put the right accent on the right syllable,have that sensitivity and twist of an expression and make it a whole new story for you?That you can`t just imitate Olivier playing Hamlet,that you cannot play Shakespeare in velvet heavy clothes,in pretentious halls forever and hope people will mistake your copycat impulses for talent.That there are as many Richards,and Romeos and Hamlets,and Henrys as there are visionaries out there?

    I`m sure visionary is a term that escapes you altogether.You don`t seem to grasp the slightest of that idea.Tennant is playing Tennant?Meaning what?That he never gained x pounds to fit in?That he brings in everywhere that personal touch,the expressions,the gestures and the devil may care attitude?And yet you haven`t wondered for a moment how is it that he can wrap that around every character,from some random TV series to a royal stage character?Don`t get me wrong,I think it`s touching and worthy of applauding when actors go that extra mile to identify themselves with the character they portrait.But even more so, I find it thrilling and it just gives me the goose bombs when an actor holds such genius,such inner power,that he doesn`t need to adapt to one given character.Instead he takes the character and makes it his own.And not only he won`t loose anything in the process,but he enriches it,and gives it a whole new meaning,casts a brand new light and brings out details,touches,twists you wouldn`t have thought of before.No matter what,you will never confuse THAT Richard with another one.You will leave the theater fully aware that you have just seen not Richard II,but TENNANT`s Richard II,no more,no less.Never in your life you will refer to that play you just saw as Richard.Nope,it will always be Tennant playing Richard,not Derek Jacobi,not John Gielgud,nor Ben Wishaw.And if you can`t grasp the amazing power in that,you`re simply not worth bothering with.

    So at the end of it all,come clear about it.What is it that you hate Tennant for because you`re clearly not knowledgeable enough to refer to his acting.So what then?The fact that this completely ordinary,NOT diva-like,NOT tanned six-pack,can strike you as an utterly unimportant bloke outside the theater,only to grow larger than life on the stage?That he just casts a shadow on everything and everyone around him,up there?That his ethereal,elvish,maybe bisexual-geez,the blasphemy,in a country known for its duplicity,except for the royal court,yeah?-Richard,just like his Hamlet,or Romeo,or Edgar,are overwhelming and different?What if he was this 60+ tired representation?You could forgive him then,couldn`t you?I bet you could.If he followed patterns.If he made Richard either misunderstood or unpleasant,as long s it had follow the established old “rules”,if he was simply the next Wishaw,not trying to come out of the scripts.

    What drives you all old,tired people crazy,is that he can have it all.He can play Shakespeare,the peak of the acting aspirations,and then he can just go be this super-popular sci-fi character,while he keeps his private life private,has a wife and kids,and can still match Converse with a trench,and grow it into a fashion,and have the whole female population faint at his sight.And he makes bloody LINES at the backdoors of once deserted theaters!He is just too young and beautiful,and full of life,and successful,and geeky,and AMAZINGLY GOOD AT WHAT HE DOES.You people who had to be critics because you have nothing constructive to say,but needed a job anyway,just can`t stand that.He is guilty of being everything you can`t be,so you spit poison at him.Give it your best,an angry rant like mine will always be the peak of your career.

    It`s really not important,but for the sake of it I just want to underline this.Im not a Doctor Who fan.Meaning I know it,like it,but really doesn`t lead my preference for David Tennant.I came to know him through Hamlet.I fell in love.I regret nothing.Neither does my husband.Oh yes,and just in case you were wondering,I`m not 15 either.More like well over double that.And I`m not american.I`m east european.And theater is what I grew up with and fed upon.You really can`dump any of your stereotypes on me.Or go ahead and do so,who cares.

    Fact remains,this is not just the worst,most undocumented review ever.And you should never be allowed to bash things just because you couldn`t get laid if your life depended on it and you`re frustrated about it.That`s the downside of internet.The upside is,there will always be someone like me,showing you for the worthless scum you really are.Cheers,hope nobody will ever pay you again to review something you know nothing about.

  • jeffreysweet

    Just saw him in this role in Brooklyn. Respectfully disagree.