You may my glories and my state depose / But not my griefs; still am I king of those.
David Tennant with the Westminster Abbey portrait of Richard II (production poster via RSC.org.uk)
I first saw David Tennant on stage in a Shakespeare play, "As You Like It," at Stratford in the summer of 1996, before the Royal Shakespeare Company production transferred to London. His Touchstone was funny and surprisingly sweet, in full dress motley with a fool's cap, what looked like a harlequin grandmother's dressing gown, and a lovely Scottish accent (Tennant's own). He continued stage and television work for the next ten years, and in 2005 started playing the part that everyone knows: the man who brought "Doctor Who" back to a hungry world. In 2005, the BBC finally bowed to insistent popular opinion and resurrected its classic series, which had run from 1963 to 1989 (with an indifferent made-for-tv movie episode in 1989). The second "new Doctor," Tennant quelled his accent and darkened his chestnut hair to regenerate the genius, joy, and charisma of the Doctor in a role he'd loved watching since he was three. He has another hit on his hands with the ITV police drama "Broadchurch" (2013), of which he begins (somewhat inexplicably, as the original show is excellent) filming a Fox TV version, "Gracepoint," near Vancouver next week. For the past three months, however, he's been playing Shakespeare's version of King Richard II at Stratford, and at the Barbican Theatre.
"Richard II" (c. 1595) is classed as a history play, and is based on real events, but it's also a tragedy. King Richard II is deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who claims the crown as King Henry IV. Richard is soon murdered in prison. Fathers trouble sons and vice versa in Richard II, and the ability and right to rule is complicated by inheritances. His lack of a son and heir is, for example, one of the chief things that helps doom Richard; when rebels staged productions of "Richard II" during Queen Elizabeth's old age in 1601, the childless, heirless queen famously snapped at her councillors, "I am Richard II, know ye not that?" Richard's documented, and in this production well-demonstrated, close relationship with his male favorites has, as Shakespeare puts it, "made a divorce betwixt his queen and him."
Yes, Tennant is accordingly campy as Richard sometimes, tossing his long ginger hair extensions and raising his voice like Graham Chapman or John Cleese playing ladies on "Monty Python's Flying Circus." He is also assertive and radiantly, symbolically kingly. The concept of royalty in this production evades any pat attempt to call the king gay Richard or straight Richard. Either is too reductive and limiting, and Tennant's performance cleverly makes this very point. As Richard, he kisses a man twice -- which garnered audience gasps both times -- but twice kisses a woman, too (no gasps for that).
Tennant is very tall, and more muscular than he looks on tv. However, he is careful, and he uses his body to literally rise into the role, starting out slumped and casual as the king is careless, becoming straighter and filling the stage more, ironically and correctly, as Richard's powers are taken. That Bolingbroke is excellently played by Nigel Lindsay as a nasty nationalistic lout opens up the play into a battle of personality versus brutality, intellect versus bullying, and poetry versus ill-spoken words. Bolingbroke is bitter about having "sigh'd my English breath in foreign clouds," while his supporters dismiss "Richard of Bordeaux" (the real Richard was indeed born in France in 1367). Bolingbroke's aggressive jingoism comes out intensely in this production, in contrast to Richard's tactile, vocal affection for England as his Eden. As this thug waxes, and Richard wanes, the true king becomes nobler, more eloquent, and more attractive; and Tennant's face, with its knife edges, wide-open planes, and expressive brown eyes, becomes more alive.
Act III, Scene 2 begins with a celebration of Richard's love for his kingdom as he returns from Ireland: "So, weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth, / And do thee favours with my royal hands...." Tennant strips off his boots, eagerly stretching long bare feet onto the stage as if curling his toes in invisible grass. As he crouches, hands spread at arms' length, face alight with happiness, you can see green fields and autumn harvests and hawthorn buds, the broad backs of the Downs and Yorkshire's dales, brooks and rivers, a land conjoined to its lord. The magical moment is lost almost instantly, though, as Richard hears of Bolingbroke, his army, and his actions. He drops to the stage again, now saying:
"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...."
Laughter turns in a heartbeat to solemnity, then to terror. For me it was the most powerful scene of the night.
Richard's kingliness manifests itself linguistically and physically as the play proceeds. As he stands, likened to the sun, on the battlements of Flint Castle, the stage lights render Richard, with his cloth-of-gold robes, his sceptre and orb, too bright to look upon. Soon stripped to a white shift, barefoot and bareheaded, Tennant sets his shoulders back and towers over Lindsay and everyone else on stage, every inch a king. The simple white costume makes him look saintly, too (despite its sheerness, which occasioned irreverent though appreciative comment at the interval). When, repeatedly, Tennant sits on the floor, or kneels, or crawls, it makes Richard's fall and abdication visible.
Richard publicly unkings himself in his own words, in Act IV, Scene 1 ("Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be"). But he, and we, know that there is no such thing as an ex-king. The only ex-king is a dead king, and Bolingbroke is a butcher -- at one over-the-top moment, Bolingbroke swings the bloody head of one of Richard's favorites in each hand, while shouting the word "holiday." It's only a matter of time before the beautiful sun king is murdered. We don't want it, but we know it's coming, and we wait for it, sadly. Tennant plays Richard the prisoner in Pomfret with grace, and not without wry humor. His last soliloquy (Act V, Scene 5) is stunning. Jailed in a horrible subterranean oubliette, chained, dirty, but with his white skin and bright hair dazzling in the dark, Richard burns like a candle in his confinement. The words shine, too: "Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented…." That Richard's killer is unmasked as his cousin Aumerle is a shocking thing in this production that's not in the play; it does real dumbing-down violence to Shakespeare, and made me flinch more than the execution itself.
The play closes with the new king beset by troubles: he's rightly viewed as a murderer, and abandoned by his court; and his son and heir is no prince but a drunken jerk. Above all, he is haunted by the ghost he has deposed. The final spotlight remains where it truly belongs: above, on the white, vibrant spirit of Richard -- far more real than is "King Henry IV" -- while Harry Bolingbroke stands unhappy and afraid, bent in the shadows below.
* * *
"I saw you as Touchstone, a long time ago," I told Tennant after the show.
"On this very stage," he said.
"No, at Stratford. What a long way you've come since then."
He grinned and shook his head slightly, his Scottish burr more of a purr. "Ah, no."
Tennant was being politely self-deprecating. He needn't be. He's spent the seventeen years in between working on many stages, for global audiences. He's gone from playing the fool to playing the king. Yet after two performances on a Wednesday, near the end of the show's run, Tennant still had the energy -- and the courtesy -- to spend more than half an hour signing autographs, posing for selfies-with-David (many collected on Twitter at the fansite @David_Tennant), meeting fans. "There are always mobs here, and he always stays," a Barbican staff member told me as we watched him oblige on a chilly, misty, windy night, his long red braid down his back, his alabaster face tired, but smiling.
* The RSC production of "Richard II" was sold out for the whole course of its run, and closes tomorrow -- Burns Night. Don't despair entirely if you missed it. A filmed performance has been shown in theaters already, and will be available on DVD this spring.
Anne Margaret Daniel 2014
David Tennant in rehearsal for Richard II (photo via RSC.org.uk, and © Kwame Lestrade)