richard II

On David Tennant, ‘Richard II,’ and the Joy of Acting

David Tennatn as Richard II at BAM. Photo by RSC

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.

London Part I: Richard II and Basking in David Tennant’s Glory

Happy New Year! Y’all are probably sick and tired of hearing it by now, but LMezz wishes you an awesome 2014!  I spent my New Year’s midnight 5 hours earlier than usual because I was in *say it with me now* Greenwich Mean Time Zone!

An accurate depiction of the jetlag I experienced

More specifically, I rang in the New Year at a Tex-Mex restaurant called Chiquito’s in Leicester Square in London because a) parties intimidate me and b) strawberry margaritas needed to happen.

London’s theatre scene is very similar to New York’s, but also rather different in some key ways. The West End and Broadway frequently trade-off musicals. Matilda and Twelfth Night/Richard III In Rep series are the latest British shipments to arrive on Broadway, while Book of Mormon and Once have gotten the overseas treatment.

Soooo ummmm I can haz Richard II on Broadway? Probably not. But crazier things have happened.

Lately, I’ve been scouring the internet for the best Richard II gif I can find. My ideal gif is one of David Tennant putting on his crown, which he does with a little hair flip. It’s possibly one of the most gorgeous things I’ve seen ever. I will find a clip of this. And I will learn to make gifs. And I will notify you when I provide this very important gift to mankind.


Now, before I begin the review portion of my post, let me state that Richard II is actually NOT Richard III. You know that crooked old evil king whose remains were found in a parking lot? This isn’t that guy.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s earlier and lesser-performed plays. It doesn’t quite have the same dramatic legacy as your Hamlets or Julius Caesars, but it is very much a precursor to these later royal masterpieces about what happens when lines of succession are disrupted.  Richard II became king at ten years old. He has been historically characterized as narcissistic, beautiful, and possibly mentally ill in his later life. Shakespeare’s portrayal follows these characterizations pretty closely. Richard II is a king who seems disconnected from his people, yet his regality, confidence, and majesty inspire admiration. He is firm in his belief that he is God’s agent and chosen king. And in spite of his moral failings, he is incredibly introspective and sharp.

Because David Tennant is a heavenly creature, he is a perfect fit for Richard II. Sitting on his throne to solve the play’s opening quarrel, he looks firmly yet gracefully up towards heaven, as if symbolically seeking his divine inspiration from above, not from his own people. His walk is quick and effortless. We can certainly argue that Richard’s behavior is a performance. He knows how to gain the respect of his court, and his detached holier-than-thou act is just a power play. Yet, it is fascinating how easily Richard switches between very human traits like vulnerability and treachery, and his detached kingly persona. There’s an imposing aura of sanctity about it all– how one man can be so assured about his place in the world– and Tennant captures it perfectly.

This is probably where the hair comes in. David Tennant’s hair extensions (which he has kept in throughout the play’s run) made the internet rounds when the first official photos were released, and the general consensus was that they are horrifying to look at. As a longtime admirer of Tennant’s hair, I was heartbroken to see those long mousy locks and shaped eyebrows. Why would anybody do that to such perfect hair!

I would have given ANYTHING to be this girl

But having seen the play, I love the locks. The eyebrows can please get the ef out, but I love the locks. It is such an essential part of Richard’s character and it encompasses everything there is to know about him: his confidence, his privileging of the aesthetic over the practical, his femininity, his passivity. It’s just amazing. And I can see why Tennant keeps them in even in his off-time, but he has certainly learned how to own the hair oh-so-naturally.

And while we’re on the never-ending subject of how perfect David Tennant is, can I just say how perfect David Tennant is? His acting choices always surprise me, and yet they feel so natural and essential. Every word and gesture is deliberate and important, and yet it never seems like his performance is overly calculated or over-the-top. He has an obvious passion and intellect for the text, and seems like the perfect person to pore over a book with.  David, please join my book club.

This king takes his throne, y'all.
This king takes his throne, y’all.

Of course, the play is about more than just Richard II’s reign; it’s also about the guy who kills him. Richard is deposed via methods that are just as deceitful as his reign. There’s tons of ambiguity in this play– who killed who? did he really order that guy killed? did that kiss actually really just happen?– and Richard’s successor Henry Bollingbroke, while different in personality, turns out to be just as crafty.

But you know. Without the hair.

Richard II was performed at an incredibly unique space in London called The Barbican. I’ve visited this space once before and it really feels like the future of theatrical spaces. First of all, this space doesn’t just house a theater. It is also home to a school, a night club, a restaurant, a gallery, and several other venues. It’s kind of an all-for-one go-to stop for culture. The closest thing in New York might be The Public Theater in the East Village, or possibly Lincoln Center without the schmaltz. Secondly, the Barbican theater space is super comfortable. There’s plenty of legroom, and no seat is a bad seat. The only theater I’ve been in that has felt better than this is the Olivier Theater at the National Theater in London. Spaces like this make theater feel more accessible, and attract a wider audience than those that might typically see a Shakespeare play, or really any play for that matter.

Okay, this concludes Part I of my London Theater Reflections/Fangirling. Next up I’ll talk about a VERY different play that has been earning rave reviews called Mojo and some not so fun theatrical spaces.

Announcement Fun Time!


I’m going to London Y’ALL. From December 26 to January 1, I will be pretending that I am a native Brit and I will basically be spending my time doing the exact same things I would have done had I stayed in New York and saved myself $3000 seeing lots of plays, eating lots of food, spending tons of money, and other hopelessly touristic things!

I’ll definitely be writing about everything I see whilst there. As of now, the lineup is Richard II starring David Tennant, the new American Psycho musical, and the critically-lauded revival of Mojo.

Giggity giggity


Giggity Squared

I’m also planning on getting a ticket to see The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk’s latest immersive theater experience since Sleep No More.



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