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David Tennant’s Richard II (RSC)

We went to see David Tennant as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eponymous production last night. As a production it was all you’d want from RSC – great actors, impeccably staged. But I can’t get over the feeling that actually, it’s just not a very good play (or it simply hasn’t aged well).

It’s a reasonably early Shakespeare play, almost all in iambic pentameter with very little prose, and a great deal of rhyming couplets (later plays close scenes with a rhyme, but don’t use it throughout). This made a lot of it sound like a Hallmark greeting card poem as the rhyme and rhythm are quite regular.

There’s also a howling clunker of plot, in which one character simply forgets to tell another of the death of the previous King’s widow:

[Servant:] My Lord, I had forgot
To tell your Lordship, to day I came by, and call’d there,
But I shall grieve you to report the rest
[York:] What is’t knave?
[Servant:] An hour before I came, the Duchess died.

I almost laughed out loud at this.

Another problem is that Richard II is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Perhaps it’s a failure of Tennant’s acting or Greg Doran’s direction (but I doubt it; they’re both highly professional) but Richard simply has no redeeming features, so you I didn’t care what happens to him. He’s vain, messianic and treats his nobles badly. He deserves to lose the throne. At least with Richard III, you enjoy his evilness; Richard II just seems rather wet.

2 Responses to “ David Tennant’s Richard II (RSC) ”

Comment by Bill Lees

What a coincidence – we’ve just got back from seeing it in Stratford tonight and I’m bound to agree that Richard II just isn’t a particularly good play. Tennant’s rather effete Richard did get a bit annoying, though it was a thoroughly professional performance. By all accounts his Hamlet of 6 years ago was much better (I think you caught that one – I didn’t). You’re quite right that King Richard lacked redeeming qualities altogether.

Something of an anti-climactic ending, too. At the performance we were at, there seemed to be a bit of Tennant hero-worship going on, with just a few people in the audience rising to their feet to give Tennant a fairly half-hearted standing ovation.

On the other hand, Oliver Ford Davies was quite brilliant as York.

Comment by Julia

Wow – you’ve seen a Hall Mark greeting card in iambic pentameter?? This I must see. Would you like to share it with us? Iambic pentameter is usually thought to be based roughly on the rhythms of every day speech, but it is of enormous help to the actor because it shows them where to put the stresses to give emotional emphasis – not always where one might expect. Most Renaissance poets wrote in iambic: da DUM, da DUM – pentameter just means five of those pairs to a line. Shakespeare, Donne, Spenser, Sidney etc, Pope and Johnson wrote in iambic, so did Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats etc and indeed for centuries was the most common style of versification until the twentieth-century. Emily Dickinson, who you praise in an earlier post, seems to have written mainly in alternating iambic trimeter (3 sets of da DUM to a line) and iambic tetrameter (4 sets)

Shakespeare’s plays are ALL mainly in iambic pentameter including the majority of his last: The Winter’s Tale.

Lets take another look at Richard II – because it is the only way I can add emphasis here I have capitalised the heavy stresses. Try reading this out with heavy emphasis on the capitals

This LAND of SUCH dear SOULS, this DEAR dear LAND,
Dear FOR her REPuTATion THROUGH the WORLD,
Is -NOW leased OUT, I DIE proNOUNcing IT,
Like TO a TENeMENT or PELTing FARM:
EngLAND, bound IN with THE trUMPHant SEA
Whose ROCKYy SHORE beats BACK the ENVious SIEGE
Of WATery NEPtune, is NOW bound IN with SHAME
With INKy blots AND rotTEN PARCHment BONDS:
That ENGland, THAT was WONT to CONquer OTHers,
Hath MADE a SHAMEful CONQuest OF ITself.

Just like a Hallmark card? Can you see how angry this sounds?

Stresses fall either where emphasis is wanted because of meaning: ‘Land’ The land that renowned throughout the world (heavy emphasis) is now in decline, used simply as a source of revenue to pay for wars – and is happening now: this is the grim present: NOW leased out, NOW bound in. It is no more than a FARM, it is under SIEGE, it is a source of SHAME – those heavy end emphases really give the actor something to spit out. Talking of spitting look at the line-up of stresses in line 4, with all those spitting Ts. In the last two lines here there are 11 syllables – the lines themselves break down and end raggedly – distorting the iambic to make a point is also typically Shakespeare.

Incidentally, I have no idea about Mr Tenant’s performance because I have not seen it. However I am finding it very odd that we suddenly need to judge Shakespeare’s plays on whether or not their characters have those nice cheery redeeming qualities. (Starting to feel I AM in Hallmark card land here!) Oddly enough I can think of quite a few leading politicians who don’t appear to have a lot of redeeming qualities. Perhaps Shakespeare met some?

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