The player king

December 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

I came relatively late to Shakespeare’s histories (second year of university to be exact), but I have come to love them as much as the tragedies and comedies. But don’t ask me to choose a favourite. Henry IV for the multilayered portrait of England and for the comedy and pathos of the relationship between Falstaff and Hal? Henry V for the rousing rhetoric and the psychological complexity of its protagonist? Richard III for one of the wickedest villains in Shakespeare’s oeuvre? Or Richard II for the poetry and the ambiguity? (More than any of the others, it lacks an obvious hero or villain.)

Richard II: Ralph Fiennes

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Richard II three times. The first, back in 2000, was the Almeida Theatre’s production with Ralph Fiennes as the king. If I’m being completely honest, I must admit that I was so giddy at the thought of being in the same room as Ralph Fiennes that I may have missed out on some of the subtleties of his performance, but his Richard was haughty, petulant and, especially in the second half of the play, teetering on a knife edge between reason and madness.

Richard II: Ben Whishaw

The second was much more recent and on screen rather than stage – Ben Whishaw in the production that formed the first part of the BBC’s version of the Henriad, The Hollow Crown. Whishaw seemed like a more obvious choice for the role – his youth and the fragile, otherworldly quality he often brings to his work were certainly in his favour – and his Richard caught both the spoilt childishness and the tragic vulnerability of the character.

David Tennant

Then last weekend I saw the RSC’s new production, with David Tennant. What immediately struck me about his Richard – more so than what an arrestingly effete figure he cut, with his gold robes and cascading hair – was his voice: hushed and plangent as the strings of a lute. Although I had no difficulty hearing his lines, even sitting at the back of the theatre, I found myself wanting to lean forward and strain to catch every word.

It occurred to me, as I watched Richard gradually be undone by his pride and vanity, that Tennant had understood something essential about the character that other actors perhaps have not: that he has been playing a role his entire life. This is, after all, a king who ascended the throne at the age of ten. He has spent so much of his life (almost its entire span) acting a part – posturing and preening, playing everyone in his vicinity like an actor his audience and forcing them to hang on his every word (hence the extraordinarily quiet voice, more powerful than bluster) – that he is, in essence, a player king. And it is this sense of play-acting having become a way of life that makes it all the more devastating when what remains of the real man eventually emerges – when it is too late.

Would I say that Tennant’s Richard II is superior to the others? No, they all bring something different to the table, and as I’ve said before, I don’t think there is a single right or perfect interpretation of any of Shakespeare’s characters. But his is certainly the most subtle I’ve ever seen.


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