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Richard II

Over the years, I’ve probably seen most of Shakespeare’s comedies, and a good few of his tragedies, but very, very few of the History Plays. In fact, the only one I can remember seeing is Anthony and Cleopatra many years ago with Vanessa Redgrave (I think) as Cleopatra. What I do remember very clearly is that Christopher and I both found it very hard work and extremely slow going – when Cleopatra was in the midst of a very long soliloquy about whether or not to commit suicide, it was all I could do not to shout out “For Heaven’s sake, stop dithering and get on with it! Put us all out of your misery!”

So although I had seen some rave reviews of David Tennant’s performance as Richard II at the RSC, I wasn’t tempted to make the effort to go to Stratford to see it. Even when Chris was alive, we didn’t make it to Stratford very often – it’s an awkward distance away: too close to be worth staying overnight, but far enough that it’s a long trek home after a performance. And I’m just not up to that sort of effort at the moment. However, I then saw that one performance was going to be broadcast live to theatres across the UK, including Malvern, and that put a completely different complexion on the matter. The ticket price was mid-way between that of a theatre ticket and a cinema seat, and it was a very accessible way to see a play that I didn’t know at all. And, for all that he’s famous as Dr Who, David Tennant is an extremely accomplished Shakespearian actor, and well worth watching.

The play was broadcast on Wednesday night, and it was really quite odd. There was a live audience at the RSC at Stratford, and the actors had been instructed to play to them, while a number of cameras captured the action and broadcast it live. Some of the actors, David Tennant in particular, clearly always knew where the camera was, and were acting at least in part towards it, whilst other actors seemed more unaware and were apparently acting only towards the live audience. The cameramen were able to get some quite tight close-ups on key scenes, so we in the cinema audience got a better view of parts of the action than any of the people actually present at Stratford. But, on the other hand, we were restricted to the view that the broadcast director wanted to give us, and if that was a close-up then there was no ability for us to look at the broader ensemble cast and see their reactions to the unfolding events.

There’s a particular dynamic when you are part of the audience for a live performance, with the actors and audience having a shared experience and feeding off each other. The performers clearly had that link with the live audience at Stratford, but they didn’t have it with us, even though we too were watching it live. From the point of view of the audience experience, it was rather like watching a TV sitcom that had been recorded in front of a live audience. Better than a sterile performance without a live audience, but nowhere near as good as actually being there in person.

Having said that, it was clearly a very good production. David Tennant was excellent as Richard II, with long flowing hair extensions, secure (at least initially) in his Divine Right to rule. He spoke the verse extremely well, so that it sounded very natural and unforced, which is more than could be said for some of the more junior actors. I didn’t know the plot at all, and Mediaeval England is not my period, so I was coming to it completely fresh. With hindsight, it would have been better if I’d read the play in advance, so that at least I was forewarned who was who. As it was, it took me most of the first act to work out that the man they kept calling “Hurfud” was in fact the Duke of Hereford and therefore Henry Bolingbroke, the rival and ultimate usurper to Richard II. Without that key bit of information, nothing much made sense!

I think it’s very commendable of the RSC to attempt to broaden its audience in this way. This was the first time they’ve broadcast a performance live, but they have plans to do around three per year, as they work their way through Shakespeare’s entire canon over the next few years. It will make them a reasonable amount of money, and allow people to see the performances who would be unable to get to London or Stratford. By my reckoning, it’s not as good as being there in person, but still a worthwhile experience. I shall look out for more live broadcasts at Malvern – though I don’t think I’ll bother with any more of the History Plays. They’re clearly not my thing, and I think I’ll stick to the comedies and tragedies in the future.