Review: Richard II @ Barbican ****


2016 is the year of Shakespeare!

And my 2016 couldn’t have gotten off to a much more Shakespearean start, as I watched not one, but four Shakespeare plays. In the space of three days! No, I wasn’t wending my way round London, running from show to show. It was all part of the Barbican’s King and Country Cycle, comprising of four RSC reprisals of Shakespeare’s Histories: Richard II, Henry IV 1, Henry IV 2, and Henry V.


And it was an incredible experience to say the least.

I’ll be reviewing each production and then at the end of this week, I’ll talk about the Cycle as a whole. So without much further ado about nothing, let’s start.


David Tennant reprises the eponymous role in Richard II the first of the four plays. It’s a great one to start with: not only does it play around with traditional sets but with the text itself in a way which really works.

The stage is incredible. I’m still not entirely sure how they produced the effects, but it makes for an ornate, impressive view. Though at points, the stage feels almost bare with minimal pieces of large set. This helps to focus the audience’s attention on key pieces, including a coffin, a platform and something which isn’t even set: the hollow crown. Watch its movement throughout the whole four plays, as what Gregory Doran does with it is genius. You get a real sense of ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’, equal to if not more so than in Henry IV 2 where that quotation is from. Another commendable attribute of this production is its interpretation of the words. The emphasis Doran places on offhand speeches leads to a payoff, bringing a homoerotic subtext to the forefront. Richard and Aumerle’s relationship is not then an addition to the play but an interpretation. And I do approve of the change in the last scene, because it works. And breaks your heart.

David Tennant as Richard II. Photo © Kwame Lestrade

Tennant’s Richard is an interesting take: I was somewhat hesitant at first, as the characterisation quite quickly. Two scenes in, however, this makes sense. We see Richard for what he is: a young and reckless king, donning the royal mantle for some court scenes then dropping it immediately in private. This emphasis on the folly of youth and inter generational tension remains a key theme throughout the Cycle, Hal and Henry IV being the obvious example. Tennant has the audience hanging on his every word during the ‘hollow crown’ scene and his take on the ‘Let us sit upon the ground’ speech is like a rollercoaster.

Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke, and David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC

Britton pulls triple duty in this Cycle, playing Henry IV in three of the four parts. And credit to him! I can’t even remember my card number, let alone three plays worth of dialogue! This casting proves key, bringing the whole Cycle together. In this production, we see a young Bolingbroke to which Britton brings a sense of as of yet unbridled power mingled with a need for justice. Here, we do not see a King with the country in his hands. We see a man with the world on his shoulders. ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’, even from the moment of coronation as Britton so expertly portrays.

Sam Marks as Aumerle, and David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC

Finally, Sam Marks is brilliant in the role of Aumerle, a normally smaller part. But Marks brings an innocence which only makes the later scenes more tragic. The scene where he and Richard sit upon the battlements is inspired: no lines, nothing more than looks, and yet they express so much.

Verdict: a rare thing indeed: a reinvention of Shakespeare which works with perfect casting and interpretation of the text.

Having finished its residency at the Barbican, the King and Country Cycle will be touring internationally to China and the US. For more information on locations and to purchase tickets, visit the King and Country website.


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