Richard II (RST, Preview performances 10th, 11th, 12th October 2013)

The Summer RST Company have left, and the barriers have appeared around the stage door. Tweeters twitter about how wonderful David Tennant’s performance is. It’s an ‘enthralling performance’, ‘just extraordinary’ and ‘mesmerising’ they say.

Richard II enters the stage and is at the centre of his court with his flatters whispering in his ear.

The casting of David Tennant was an important move in setting out Doran’s future strategy for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tenannt’s presence on stage, and as part of the Company, signals a change in direction form Michael Boyd’s ideas around ensemble. On stage, he is supported by a very strong company, and it is interesting that David Tennant’s presence on the RST stage adds something to the reading of his character.

I saw the first three previews of the current production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II. I realise that previews are a work in progress, and that the production may have changed during the other three performances leading up to Press Night. Previews give the creative team time to try things out before the Press Night and drop anything that just isn’t working. It was clear that there was some work to be done, but I felt that there are real positives about this production, and I was really confident that what I was seeing in previews would be the basis for an excellent production.

The first thing that struck me when I walked  into the auditorium for the first preview was both the stunning set and the that the stage had been lowered. The set  looks like a hologram and is set in a cathedral that seems to go back into the depths of the theatre. It is a very innovative use of the old proscenium arch space to create the image of gothic columns. I was delighted to see that the stage used for the summer season has been replaced by a much lower stage which is much better than the chin high stage which caused some sight lines to be problematic. Indeed, the height is much more like the height in the Courtyard Theatre, and I hope the RSC keep the stage at this height. I felt the set had been designed both for the RST and the Barbican, and I think it will work so well on a proscenium arch stage as well as on the RST stage. What I really liked about the set was  the way the light reflected on  the set and changed colours, so the garden became golden. There was a little of  Greg Doran’s Hamlet set here in that the audience were mirrored in it at points which was very effective. There was an innovative use of a platform across the stage that appeared and descended at different points. As the musicians were at the sides of the dress and upper circle, both the horizontal and vertical space of the theatre was being utilised.

The pre-show is a little clumsy. On all three nights the audience was unsure how to respond. Had the play started? Could they continue to settle into their seats. Over the three nights the pre-show had been cut from about 10 minutes to five minutes.

I felt David Tennant did a great job at getting at Richard in previews and it is a performance I could see really developing during the run. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if the awkwardness at the start was Tennant’s nerves or because he was trying to reveal an unease in the character. In the first preview, Tennant’s clothes were dishevelled, his cross askew, and his hair (with extensions) a mess.  Tennant is very good at using his physique to play an awkwardness and there was something of that here. At times, he overstressed the RP accent which gave the sense of a person uncomfortable with the role he was inhabiting. At one point on the metal platform, with Aumerle (Oliver Rix), Tennant looked as if his shirt had got caught, but that was because he had a wire on for health and safety reasons, and this felt odd as Tennant was playing a vain king that looked at himself in he mirror often.

Tennant played the transformation from king to broken man very well and I really loved the metamorphosis into a Christ-like figure at the end of the play. What wasn’t working when I saw the production was that there felt like there was anxiety in Tennant’s performance as if it didn’t quiet connect with the audience. It was as if he lacked the confidence he demonstrated so well when he played Hamlet. Maybe this was because of  the physical closeness of the performance to the audience and that made him very conscious of the audience around him. The full house standing ovations are yet to come. I am sure they will. On the first preview some people stood, and the audience clearly enjoyed the production.

The audience gasped when the  identity of the murderer is revealed and this is a  lovely touch.

I felt that the end was marred slightly by the sack in the coffin, which I am sure they borrowed from the Titus set and will have to give back. I hope this changes and that there is a real sense of the earthly body and so this can be contrasted to the spiritual in a way that I think the production is trying to get at. Another thing that didn’t work for me was the ghost of Richard clanking across the metal bridge and supposedly having to open a  gate, when ghosts walk through gates. The effect might have been better if Richard had been revealed rather than having to walk onto the platform in full view.

In previews there were some stunning performances. I was particularly impressed with Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York and Oliver Rix as Aumerle. Rix really fleshed out the character and gave the production a sense that this was the story of three cousins not just Richard and Bollingbroke. I felt the scenes between Aumerle and Richard were really strong.  The stand out performance of the previews for me was Nigel Lindsay. He played a bully, Bolingbroke, who only seemed repentant in the last moments of the play.

It was great to have seen the wonderful John Heffernan as Edward II recently. Both Richard II and Edward II explore leadership and what happens when personal emotion takes over, and I felt that the RSC production achieved this well.

For me, preview viewing is very much part of the excitement of live theatre. In a first preview you just have no idea what approach will be taken. It was exciting to share the experience with other passionate theatre goers. The excitement is also about being able to go back again on future dates to see how the production has developed. I intend to do that soon.

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