Fabulous Wigs: Richard II and Sophie's Rumba

I recently saw David Tennant in Richard II at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. There was so much that was wonderful about the production. Tennant’s performance as Richard II was perfectly pitched; the role he created here was streets ahead of his Hamlet. The set, with its projections of architectural shapes onto screens made up of fine threads, was subtly communicative of the instability of the state and the king’s power, while at the same time illustrating its magnificence. The production was well paced, and the wigs! The wigs were utterly magnificent – a technical and aesthetic triumph! But wigs aside, I didn’t feel I could sit down and write a wholly adulatory review of this Richard II; something wasn’t quite right.

Last night on Strictly Come Dancing Brendan Cole and Sophie Ellis-Bextor performed a rumba. The dance was beautiful, precise, moving, and impressive in its level of difficulty. However, the judges did not like it. The dance was deemed not raunchy enough, and the couple were slated for a lack of connection. I couldn’t believe my ears! The dance had depicted a sensitive story about love. Just because it wasn’t a dance about sex, the judges were unable to understand. This TV moment brought to my mind all the problems I had found in the RSC production of Richard II starring David Tennant. I am not drawing a parallel here between Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s beautiful rumba hair and David Tennant’s fabulous wig. Oh no! I am talking about a seeming inability to recognise any form of love other than sexual love.

Stay with me here. I’ll go back to the beginning. Tennant appeared as Richard II dressed in a flowing auburn wig, nail polish, and rather beautiful, long robes. He acted as a petulant child, a child preening and prancing, and acting the role of king. At the opening of the play he was gloriously uninterested in the honour of his nobles, making their posturing seem like a playground game casting himself as playground arbiter. Another ingredient to this performance, heralded in advance by the nail polish, was the element of camp and effeminacy that Tennant brought to his physical and verbal characterisation. Thirdly, the production made the interpretation that Richard’s relationship with his advisors and various other characters was homosexual in nature.

The interpretation that Shakespeare’s Richard II was what we would now call homosexual is one that can be backed up by textual evidence. In III.I Bolingbroke accuses Bushy and Green (the king’s former advisors), “You have in manner with your sinful hours / Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him, / Broke the possession of a royal bed / And stain'd the beauty of a fair queen's cheeks / With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.” This has lead many productions to depict Richard II throughout as a man driven by his desires for other men, kissing and fondling them, whilst ignoring the business of state. Productions often contrast this with a macho Bolingbroke, a man who is a bit rough around the edges, but the stereotype of a man’s man. We should not forget that Bolingbroke’s accusation also has a political implication: the Queen signifies a powerful alliance with her family and as such should not be neglected or mistreated. We are not only talking about the sexual here. To concentrate on an interpretation of Richard’s sexuality is quite a reductive reading of the play. Richard II is a bad king because he listens to bad council, because he over-taxes his people, because he does not respect the rights of his nobles, and because, as we see in the dramatized incident at the beginning of the play, he does not respect their honour. Like a child he treats their honour, warfare, and money as if it were a game. What’s more, at times, he treats his kingship as if it were a game. Tennant brought out the childish side of this monarch well, at one point, falling to the floor in a sulk, pulling of his crown in despair, until one of his men gently replaced his crown and wiped away his tears, as if he were a beloved toddler.

As I have said, the childish wasn’t the only, or even the dominant, strand in Tennant’s characterisation of the role. The main impression of this king, was that he dressed like a woman (hair, nail polish, clothing) and that his relationship with the other young men on the stage seemed to be primarily sexual. In contrast, we were given the butch Bolingbroke, rough, and crude, and huge. The reasons why Richard II is a bad king were clouded, and the message became he is a bad king because he is homosexual and not a ‘real man’ like Bolingbroke. The production made homosexuality analogous with effeminacy, weakness and bad kingship. Surely in the 21st Century these things are non-sequiturs. I for one can imagine a figure like Eddie Izzard playing an effective and ruthless monarch while clad in mascara and a suspender belt. Easy isn’t it. The analogy made in this production between homosexuality, effeminacy, and ineffectuality was lazy, outmoded, and homophobic.

What was stunning about Tennant’s performance (in a good way) was that he made the question of kingship a difficult one. Usually when watching or reading Richard II, and I include the Hollow Crown film production in this criticism, I think it is quite easy to decide that kingship is not inherent and that Richard is weak and has to go. No questions asked. It is hard for a 21st Century audience to imagine the conflict a subject might have felt about deposing a king. It is impossible to imagine what we might have feared for our immortal souls when considering removing a monarch anointed by god. Tennant gave us a sense of this conflict. At times he was a child, snivelling on the floor, but just when I had made up my mind that kingship was not inherent, that he had no nobility, he was rise up in a magnificent display of power. When Tennant’s Richard II appeared in III.III with the words “We are amazed; and thus long have we stood / To watch the fearful bending of thy knee, / Because we thought ourself thy lawful king: / And if we be, how dare thy joints forget / To pay their awful duty to our presence?” he spoke them with a terrible magnificence and power. He did not seem like a man on his way out, deluded that he was still in power, he seemed like a king. There was an aura around Tennant, there was something innate to the sovereignty of this Richard II, and the audience was privy to something of the dreadful conflict inherent in deposing a rightful king.  

A friend who had also seen the production disagreed with me. She felt that the homosexual love that the production had created, for example, between Aumerle and Richard (Richard kissed Aumerle during this production) was integral to the success of the production, and that this had created a tension for Aumerle, and other characters, between their love for Richard and what they thought the right course of action was for themselves and for the country. My answer to this was yes they loved him. But can we understand no other form of love than the overtly sexual? Love and loyalty to the sovereign was powerful thing in the early modern imagination, the relationship between the king and his subject was thought to be analogous to that between God and his church, between a father and his child. The bond was sacred and profound. This particular type of love, that for an anointed sovereign whom we believe is appointed by God to govern our lives, is alien to us now. We only have a figurehead monarchy, and do not believe that some are born greater than others, or to rule others. Surely though, we understand loyalty, and we are capable of understanding, more types of love than the merely sexual. This production of Richard II was brilliant in many ways. Tennant’s performance was powerful and intelligent, he was in turns childish and magnificent. His performance and the production as whole conducted a complex discussion of the subtleties of kingship and love and loyalty. Why then did this production fall back on old stereotypes? I think for the answer we have to look beyond the RSC, and even the judges on Strictly Come Dancing, and ask whether we as a society are able to understand love beyond the sexual.

Photograph from the RSC


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