A coffin rests center stage. In Shakespeare’s text, Richard II begins with the eponymous king (David Tennant) sitting upon his throne and arbitrating a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke (Jasper Britton) and Thomas Mowbray (Christopher Middleton), the former accusing the latter of participating in the successful assassination of the Duke of Gloucester, the king’s uncle. However, in the RSC production currently running at the BAM Harvey Theater, the second scene has been swapped with the first: that is, with the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) mourning her dead husband and urging her brother-in-law and Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Julian Glover), to take revenge.
Thus, instead of opening on a throne, we open on a coffin, a reminder that Richard II will also end with a coffin, one belonging to the king himself. It’s a small but clever amendment, a memento mori or visual chiasmus that is particularly prescient since the RSC is presenting all four plays of the Henriad throughout April. Performing the tetralogy in its entirety reveals the striking circuitry of Shakespeare’s narrative, a point never lost in this production.
When he first appears onstage, Mr. Tennant is draped in all-white clothes peppered by the gold of a crown and ostentatious cross, his scepter resting between his forearm and limp hand. Face expressionless, chin arched slightly upwards, and speaking in a crisp RP, he emanates the security and entitlement of a monarch who was coronated at ten years old and who has never doubted that his title is divinely ordained. Later, as John of Gaunt is dying, the thought of pillaging Bolingbroke’s patrimony for his Irish wars fills Richard with manic glee, and Mr. Tennant transforms from a stone-faced British sovereign into a giddy, spoiled child. By the time he has been usurped and imprisoned, his chained hands mimicking the crucifixion (“[Y]ou Pilates / Have here deliver’d me to my sour cross,” he will tell his former lords), he has turned solemn and introspective. I have usually found Richard complex but unsympathetic, a mostly lousy king who deserves what he has coming to him. Nevertheless, there is sincere pathos in Mr. Tennant’s voice when he tells Bolingbroke, with a bitterness that still retains traces of his former petulance, “You may my glories and my state depose, / But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”
If it hasn’t been made clear yet, this is a stellar production, one whose sophistication teases out much of the richness of Shakespeare’s text. Along with Mr. Tennant, the cast is first-rate and unshowy, the stage design (by Stephen Brimson Lewis) sharply defined. The throne sits atop an elevated catwalk, making literal Richard’s fall and Bolingbroke’s rise. But it also seems a little precarious—Bolingbroke, after all, smashes the divine right of kings—and perfectly foreshadows the chaos that is to come.