While an American Psycho prepares to open across the river on Broadway, a more interesting denial of reality has already touched down at BAM in the person of Richard II, played with foppish grandiosity by David Tennant in Shakespeare’s majestic tragedy of that name.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s series “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings” begins chronologically with Richard II and proceeds through Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V. All four are playing in repertory at BAM, presented by BAM, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Ohio State University.
Tennant, best known in the U.S. for playing a charmingly hyperactive Doctor Who on the BBC’s long-running TV series, is the marquee star in this production of the first of Shakespeare’s quartet of history plays about the House of Lancaster. Clad in golden or pure white robes and with curly hair flowing down his back, he is an arresting figure, oozing nervous faery-king charisma. This Richard can ice over a chamber full of nobles with a single word, as when he addresses John of Gaunt (Julian Glover, in a performance of soft-spoken power) in a mocking tone with the two syllables of “Uncle.”
Director Gregory Doran and his creative team use powerful lighting and costuming to emphasize a Christ-figure aspect in Richard as the king descends to the ignominious end that he bemoans so poetically. Perched high above the wings of the stage, musicians play fanfares on trumpets and drums to announce royal pageantry. Across the theater, a trio of nunlike singers deliver solemn hymns in celestial soprano harmonies to illuminate first Richard’s certainty of his rule’s heavenly imprimatur, and then his symbolic crucifixion.
The production brims with turns at least as strong as Tennant’s. Especially notable are Oliver Ford Davies as the aging Duke of York, another uncle, tortured by divided loyalties after Richard leaves him in charge of the realm and goes off to war in Ireland; and a rock-solid Jasper Britton as Henry Bolingbroke, the Duke (and royal cousin) who returns from exile to challenge Richard’s rule, eventually to be crowned Henry IV.
Britton reappears in that role in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. But over the course of this play alone, his Henry evolves. The arrogant court favorite who spits out his consonants like cracks of thunder grows, post-exile, into a smoother, calmer ruler who seems fully justified in expecting unquestioned loyalty even from other ambitious men, something Richard could never command.
Unlike some of Shakespeare’s more frequently produced plays, Richard II is written entirely in verse, even the few scenes featuring commoners (a gardener, a faithful groomsman who visits Richard in prison). The play is packed with Shakespeare’s almost supernaturally rich and powerful language, and the RSC’s actors have a remarkably well-developed ability to convey its meaning, and thus the thrust of the story, even while delivering the archaic usages and complex wordplay that viewers will have trouble catching. Some of the lines spoken by the rhetorically gifted but not-quite-sane Richard, rendered in the swinging musicality of Tennant’s characterization, may indeed be among the more difficult to follow, especially for American listeners. The large array of characters can be dizzying, too.
Yet the story comes across magnificently. As Tennant told Time Out New York:
Rather than find a way of making these words bend to my will, I have to bend to the will of these words. It’s quite difficult. There are 400 years between us and these words; they don’t necessarily instantly connect…But there’s a point hopefully, as you’re rehearsing, where it shifts from the words driving you to you’re in charge of them…To have that vocabulary and that poetry at your command is wonderfully invigorating.
Spoken like a true modern Shakespearean.
The staging aids in no small part, both artistically and technically. Artistically, the production is paced with breathtaking perfection and visually opulent, just right for a royal drama. Technically, it’s straightforward and remarkably smooth, sonically well balanced, operatically capacious. All this is especially impressive in an imported production, but BAM always provides a glorious temporary home for the RSC. It left me very excited to see the rest of the cycle. If you’ve ever found Shakespeare’s history plays overwhelming, or thought they’d be an ordeal to follow, seeing one in this cycle will change your mind if anything will.
Richard II and the rest of King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings is currently at BAM. Tickets and information are at the website.