Sitting in his prison cell, the deposed king Richard II meditatively reflects on the nature of kingship and his sudden loss of power. He says,
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again…
Richard II is one of the great chameleon-like figures of Shakespeare’s works, ranking among other hard-to-pin-down royals like Hamlet and Richard III. He’s at once angelically majestic and humanly flawed. When surrounded by his subjects, he invokes divine right with the grace and poise of a saint, but behind closed doors he talks of looting his dying uncle’s property with malevolent glee. He can be warrior-like and masculine, witnessing the wars in Ireland himself, as well as effeminate, enjoying the luxuries of the finest Italian fashions, as well as the love of his cousin Aumerle. Richard can act esoteric and transcendent, seemingly a god among men. But he is simultaneously worldly and deeply flawed.
Richard is able to swiftly ‘play’ many ‘people’ as king, with the keen ability to judge what circumstances call for which ‘person.’ However, this protean strength eventually becomes his great weakness. The cause of his fall lies largely in the court’s suspicion of his inconsistency and his poor judgment. Richard missteps when he arbitrarily banishes two members of the court, then minimizes the sentence of one when the other can exited the scene. Likewise, he allows the court to see his conniving greed and disrespectful attitude at his uncle’s death. Though Richard’s changeability is sometimes to be admired, his followers and flatterers can be just as changeable—in their loyalties. Trust is a thing easily lost and hardly gained back, and people want to know where one stands, even if they themselves prefer to stand for nothing.
When news of his usurpation arrives, he swings wildly between anxious despair and stately calm within the span of a few lines. This is his great moment of decision—to pass the crown peaceably, or to demand his God-given right to it. Perhaps what Richard mourns in handing over the crown is precisely the power to transform, to embody all these selves in one, without worrying about the consequences. Richard invokes divine right constantly (the idea that the king’s place on the throne was sanctioned by God from birth), and divine right is the only ideological guarantee for kings to keep the throne and rule with stability. His usurpation means that Richard (and other kings) have no stability to fall back on. God, essentially, is dead, and fickle man has taken over. In his prison cell, sitting with his arms extended in chains and his flowing brown hair draping his shoulders, Richard’s image invokes the crucified Christ, sacrificed to the human whims of greed and power.
Richard’s transformative powers, however, aren’t nearly as enjoyable or judicious as David Tennant’s. Tennant, who played Richard II in 2013 in London’s Barbican Theater and make his American stage debut with its reprise at BAM, has built his career on an enormous range of roles and genres. Best known for his five-year stint on Doctor Who, Tennant is a regular with the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring in both comedies (Much Ado) and tragedies (Hamlet). He’s also played a superhero villain (Jessica Jones), a washed up Vegas performer (Fright Night), and a disillusioned detective (Broadchurch).
Part of the wonder of good acting is the actor’s ability to make something that has been so carefully plotted on paper seem fresh, spontaneous, and natural. Tennant is a master of this feat. His choices are always enjoyable, often unpredictable, but always deeply rooted in his character. Every gesture is deliberate and insightful. He delivers lines with a novelty and truthfulness, and he always bridges that amazing dialectic space between consistency and surprise. Judging from his interviews, Tennant also seems to be avidly aware of his characters’ places in pop culture and dramatic history. He has hosted and narrated various pieces on Shakespeare’s legacy, and the fact that he was a lifelong fan of Doctor Who before his casting is apparent in how he approaches the role. He is a critical reader, searching into the text for information the way a scholar would, sounding out its depths and applications. He’s the kind of person you’d be desperate to attend your book club. Truly, his excellent performances come from a sheer joy and deep investment in the world of his character.
His turn as Richard II shows yet another side to Tennant’s range. Walking swiftly onstage in the opening scene, as if magically propelled by his divine mission, with his look up to the heavens, Richard seems not of this earth. And yet, Richard is so humanly flawed and so deeply introspective in his moments of peril. Tennant is the perfect choice to bridge these two extremes, every scene illuminating the fascinating paradoxes of his character. Tennant has the magnificent ability to explore Richard’s ‘many people.’ And it’s a pleasure to watch.
Richard II plays at BAM as part of the “King and Country” cycle, featuring Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Tickets through April 29.