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Review: David Tennant is back as Richard II, Barbican Theatre

Photo from 2013 production by Kwame Lestrade (c) RSC

When David Tennant’s King Richard swept onto the Barbican stage last night head held with haughty entitlement I couldn't help but grin. He’s back. And I confess I didn’t think the RSC could do this production any better but they did, somehow.

Richard II has been revived, albeit with some new cast members to replace those unavailable three years on from the original Stratford and London production, as part of a series of Shakespeare's history plays to celebrate the bards 400th anniversary.  The other plays in the series are a revival of the RSC's 2014 Henry IV parts one and two and 2015’s Henry V which sees Alex Hassell completing the journey from Prince Hal to victorious King. If you have the stamina, and I’m hoping I do, you can see all four plays over three days - Henry IV part one is tonight part two tomorrow afternoon and finishing with Henry V in the evening*.

Seeing them in succession has its own thrill with continuity of cast and plot as well as the opportunity of seeing RII and the two Henry IV’s again - Henry V will be first time viewing.

But last night the bar was set high. There was an energy I don’t remember first time around which heightened emotions to a new level. Tennant was on fighting form eliciting a yelp when he lashed out at one unfortunate character and when he kissed Aumerle (Sam Marks) it was long and lingering and spoke a thousand words.

The wit was wittier, the comedy funnier and heart strings well and truly tugged. I laughed and I cried as Tennant cleverly managed to evoke sympathy for a King who is arrogant and self-centred. His Richard is a clever word-smith but one who only realises and utilises the power of that when it is too late. The deposition scene as a result was gripping, I wasn’t sure whether to watch Richard or the reactions of Bolingbroke (the brilliant Jasper Britton). And that is part of the genius of this production, the rest of the cast are so good it doesn’t just feel like Tennant’s play.

The only minor blips for me were Mowbray, who on research I think was an understudy last night and the Queen who lacked an air of royalty.

It's a shame it has such a short run before it heads off to New York for a stint but it was a real treat to see it again. I’m still grinning. It’s my first five star play of the year and that isn’t bad for the second week in January.

It runs in rep at the Barbican until January 22 if you can get a ticket.

*This series makes a nice companion piece to Ivo Van Hove’s King’s of War epic at the Barbican in the Spring which will see Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III combined into one play. I’ve never seen H VI so it is the missing piece of the history cycle jigsaw.