Richard II Review

Although they cover many of the significant events of the Tudor reign right up to the birth of Queen Elizabeth I (who was the reigning monarch during Shakespeare's time), Shakespeare's English history plays were never intended to form a continuous tapestry of the upheavals in the royal court up to that point. It's only relatively recently that they have been grouped together and performed in chronological order and when seen in this way they do provide a fascinating overview on an important period of English history. Taking advantage for the first time of the ability to bring these great works to a wider audience via HD Live broadcasts to cinemas across the UK and the world, the RSC bring the first of the Tudor plays, Richard II (1575), to Blu-ray in the year of the 450th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. Starring David Tennant as King Richard II, it's an outstanding start to what promises to herald a new era of making Shakespeare accessible to a new audience.

Richard II may indeed have been written to point out dangerous (and potentially treasonous) parallels to Elizabeth's reign, but it and the plays that follow the line of the English crown still have great significance and interest to a modern audience. Aside from their strong basis in historical fact, they give us an important insight into human motivations in a way that brings them fully to life. Here we can see living, breathing people and understand the personalities behind them. So fully-formed are they, so clearly and meticulously laid-out the sequence of events and so insightful is Shakespeare's understanding of human nature, that you can fully relate to figures whose motivations and actions would otherwise seem incomprehensible to a modern audience. But Richard II is more than just a living history lesson. It may have historical significance, it may be capable of putting character and situation into the most beautiful and insightful verse that pinpoints the workings of human nature with revealing openness and precision, but first and foremost Richard II is a drama, and it's drama on a monumental scale.

That's the reason we are gripped by the tale of Richard II, King of England from 1377 to 1399. Ascending to the throne at the age of 10 as the successor to the "greatest of kings" Edward III, Richard sees himself as the chosen one, an agent of God. His handling of a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, however leads to terrible consequences. Richard settles the question of accusations and counter-accusations of murder and treason by the two men in relation to the death of his uncle the Earl of Gloucester by banishing them both; Bolingbroke for six years, Mowbray into permanent exile. Although it stirs up resentment, and doesn't settle the matter in the eyes of Gloucester's widow, it's only when Richard subsequently confiscates the lands and wealth of Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt - who dies while his son is in exile - that Bolingbroke is forced to return and reclaim his inheritance. Recognising that Richard's mismanagement has divided the land and his sense of justice has left many fearful of what he might do next, Bolingbroke has no option but to press Richard to hand the crown over to him.

There are less battle scenes, less assassinations, betrayals and duels fought in Richard II than in some of the other English history plays - particularly the earlier-written Henry VI plays. There is much throwing down of the gauntlet (gage), but little that results in on-stage blows. The actions might be fewer here, but words cut even more deeply in Richard II, particularly in how they relate to the important question of Englishness. John of Gaunt's speech following the banishment of his son Bolingbroke is one of the most famous and stirring moments in the work, the Duke bemoaning that "This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle" has fallen into disrepute. "England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself". The contrasts between the England of old and the England of new are fully explored in the dramatic structure and the personalities of all the characters, with the response to disputes, disagreements, betrayals, plots and allegiances determined not just by duty but by personality and conscience.

Most striking of all then, and crucial to the dynamic of a performance of the play, is the contrast between Richard II and Bolingbroke, and there could scarcely be more contrasting yet complementary performances in these roles than those of David Tennant and Nigel Lindsay. Bolingbroke is solid, assured of purpose and honourable, but no-nonsense about carrying out his intentions and in serving what he believes is right. He's not prone to fancy flights of poetry or cleverness in language and almost disdainful of those who are more eloquent than he. Nigel Lindsay's approach to the character is likewise unshowy, not seeking approval or setting himself up as the centre of attention, which could hardly make him more different from David Tennant's Richard.

The casting of David Tennant is a canny choice by the RSC. I don't think there are many who would question Tennant's acting ability, but the question of his name star-quality and his suitability for a role like Richard II is certainly a divisive one. As played by Tennant, it's certainly harder to warm to his character than it is to the other roles in the play, where you know exactly where you stand. That however is exactly how you ought to feel about Richard. He's not easily defined as arrogant, scheming or honourable and firm of purpose. He can be thoughtless and wrongheaded, but his nature is what it is by virtue of his position and how he came to it - by God-given authority to the crown. He believes he's acting out of divine wisdom, and has little cause to reflect that his actions and decisions might be seen differently by others, potentially undermining them and threatening the security of the nation.

Tennant's performance is consequently the most 'out-there'. He's a little bit hammy and on the camp side, but that's fun to watch. His phrasing and his timing of delivery plays on more modern usage of the words, but that's a clever strategy that gets a few chuckles without losing any of the intent or meaning. He has you however hanging on every word when he speaks and that's what you want, even if it's not exactly how you might necessarily expect it. It's a good enough performance to pull you through the complications of switching allegiances in the first half of the drama, but the strength of the characterisation that Tennant has created really comes through in the latter scenes when you need to understand how and why he is forced abdicate to his cousin. The riot of emotions and contradictions that are bound up in this decision are laid bare for all to see. It's brilliantly built up and delivered then, making Richard's death scene all the more affecting.

The influence of Gregory Doran's direction shouldn't be underestimated here in how he contrasts the acting styles of the older actors with the younger ones in a way that emphasises the change that is about to take place in England between Richard's "god-ordained" way of ruling and a return to old political pragmatism that will nonetheless not, as we shall see, serve Henry IV all that well. The direction is likewise pitched between the traditional and the modern, as the play requires, the delivery pacy yet clear in enunciation and meaning, drawing all of the intent and conflict out of every scene. A measure of how well this is achieved is in those scenes that have to balance comic timing and delivery with the deadly serious intent that lies behind them, and the director and cast hit precisely the right note every time. The scene where Aumerle and his mother plead Henry Bolingbroke for clemency while York sues for his own son's punishment for plotting and treason - a scene that also serves to define the kind of ruler Henry IV will be - is just perfect.

The use of the RSC's Swan Theatre stage at Stratford upon Avon is also perfect for the purposes of the play and for its transfer to filmed live theatre. Long rather than wide, playing almost in the round, it would be difficult to keep up the pace, flow and drive of the play if there were complicated props and sets to assemble and work around. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis makes good use of a bare stage and lighting with an innovative use of projections on chains in the background to create depth and ambience. Locations are not critical in Richard II for a sense of place other than for it to be recognisably England, but mood is critical for each scene, and that's achieved brilliantly in the use of lighting, as well as through musical interludes, drumming and singing. Every scene has a strong character and it transfers very well to live filmed drama.

The RSC's 2014 Richard II is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The Blu-ray is a BD50 disc , the transfer of the live HD broadcast is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24 fps film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.

Opus Arte specialises in DVDs and Blu-rays of live productions of ballet, opera and drama. The specifications of the such productions filmed and released in the High Definition format are always of an extremely high standard and this release is no exception. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release, the HD transfer handling the theatre conditions, lighting and colours to perfection. There are no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing, the filming picking up every detail to perfection in every lighting condition.

Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz. I didn't detect radio mics on any of the actors, and didn't see any microphones placed about the stage, but however they recorded the sound, every line is perfectly clear and balanced in both mixes. Evidently, the sound is mainly dialogue-based, but live music and chorus singing also demonstrate the wider dynamic, with drumming making use of the LFE channel in certain dramatic moments and scene changes. Clarity of speech is vital, and it is always perfectly audible.

Subtitles are in English, French and German. The font is white, bold and clear to read. The English subtitles have the full spoken text of the play.

The RSC promoted this new venture into HD broadcasts heavily, with a number of Production Diary features made available on their website and a number of them shown before and during the interval of the live broadcast. These all come together nicely to provide a healthy set of interesting and informative extra features for the Blu-ray release. There's an Interview with David Tennant, a historical look at the World of Richard II and a look at how the striking visual effects were created in Playing with Light. In addition we have and Interview with director Gregory Doran, a look at Richard II in history by Helen Castor and an examination of the play by James Shapiro. Some featurettes look at the production design in more detail in Making the Costumes, Preparing the Stage, Interviewing designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, and Preparing for the Live Broadcast. There's a little bit of repetition in one or two of these extras, but running to about 5-6 minutes each, these are informative without becoming boring. If you're looking for more detail, there's also a full director's commentary by Gregory Doran here.

The RSC have lost a little bit of ground to the Globe and the National Theatre in getting their Shakespeare productions out to a wider global audience, but if their current Live in HD schedule is anything to go by, they are catching up in some style. Getting this work out on DVD and Blu-ray must play a part in this strategy to reach a wider audience - something that only the NT seems to be resisting at the moment - and this first release of Richard II is very impressive. This is a strong interpretation of an intense and dramatic work, with lively performances that bring it fully to life and make it highly accessible. The recording of the live performance for BD release is also hugely successful, and should accordingly whet the appetite for the "sequels" to Richard II that are being broadcast to cinemas in the coming months (Henry IV - Part 1 on 14 May 2014, Henry IV - Part 2 following in June).

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