The Royal Shakespeare Company has accomplished something masterful here: taking an obscure Shakespeare play and making it fresh, relevant, and inviting. David Tennant takes the title role under Gregory Doran’s direction, carrying this strange little history with deft, light touches. The two collaboratively brought humor and tragedy to the play, engaging the audience’s attention and sympathy. Tennant’s posturing and effeminate mannerisms made him delicately clownish, and his moments of revelation and helplessness made him a tragic hero on the level of Oedipus or Hamlet.
The story, adapted (like many of his histories) from Shakespeare’s own society, concerns King Richard II, an egocentric and inept monarch fighting to hold the power being stripped of him by an upstart knight. However, this production brought a whole new element to the play, an examination of the true effects of power on the individual.
This theme was exceptionally resonant in today’s world where celebrities are raised up as gods and dashed down as jokes once they make a mistake. The RSC’s Richard was then not a tired run-through of an irrelevant monarchical struggle, but rather a tragic meditation on those unlucky few whose lives are based solely in their stardom.
As a resident of Southern California myself, I harbor a strong understanding of this ugly phenomenon. The total dismissal of privacy on the part of the press has long been a rampant issue for celebrities; subsequently much of Hollywood culture creates a feeling of ownership and dehumanization of stars. Everyone feels entitled to a piece of this person’s existence. And consequentially, it is all too common that the stars become dependent on this attention: as soon as they fall (or rather, are pushed) from the spotlight, their power, their relevance, their entire livelihood disappears.
Richard’s poignancy therefore comes from heightening of this effect. Doran interpreted many of Richard’s speeches to express the draining of the celebrity-self: at some point, after all the attention, the spoiling and idolization, the human at the center of the star begins to disappear. Richard’s tragedy is not just in losing his throne, but in losing his self, the only Richard he has ever known, the “beloved” king.