I love Shakespeare; I made my way through a massive one-volume edition of the Schlegel-Tieck translations of his oeuvre as a teenager, and since then have read most, if not all of them again in the original English. I have seen several of his plays on stage during the years, in particular when I was visiting London (I have to admit that I’ve grown lazy in my old age, and haven’t been to a theatre for a very long time), but always have purposefully avoided watching screen versions of them (with the occasional exception, like Peter Greenaway’s glorious Prospero’s Books). So it has been with some irritation at myself when felt a sudden urge to splurge myself on TV and movie adaptions of his plays – an irritation, however, which did not last very long as I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself (for the most part, anyway) with them.
I started off with the first bunch of the (fairly) recent BBC production of all of Shakespeare’s history plays; The Hollow Crown, Season One comprises Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. As Leander on her blog already wrote about Henry IV and Henry V far better than I ever could (and I strongly urge you to go over there right now and read those posts), I will confine myself to Richard II here
The history plays are not my favourites among Shakespeare’s plays – in fact, I doubt very many will favour them over his tragedies and comedies. Due no doubt to the constraints of their source material, they tend to be somewhat uneven affairs, without a firm narrative structure and with a big cast quite a few of which are not fulfilling any significant purpose. This being Shakespeare, however, none of them is without its moments, and maybe only inherently flawed dramas can even hope to do justice on stage to history in all its chaotic messiness, which would make the weakness of those plays also their strength.
And this being the BBC, the production of all the plays is predictably conservative – one of the reasons why I have been avoiding screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays is that for some reason they invariable resort to bland cod historical reconstructions which (for no reason I was ever able to discern) are supposed to be more “true to the plays” than productions which dare to be imaginative and to do something with the play rather than just repeat what is already written on the page. I find this already grating for theatrical productions, and much more so for film and TV adaptions which have far greater technical means at their disposal to do some really breathtaking with their material. Alas, very, very few ever do that, and The Hollow Crown is emphatically no exception there and for the most part is content to simply illustrate the written word.
Richard II, however, is, at least to some degree, the exception from that rule, soaring beyond plodding realism to offer not just an illustration but an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play which makes it the outstanding drama in this first season not just for the play itself but also for its presentation.
The means by which this is achieved are fairly simple, but it is executed visually brilliant and this has a great effect. For one thing, there are the costumes: while Bolingbroke and his co-conspirators wear medieval armours, Richard and his entourage are clothed in what seems an Oriental, or more precisely Arabic manner (making it appear like he is returning from the Crusades rather than expedition to Ireland) which sets the king apart visually from his very first appearance; and seeing how much the divinity of kings is a subject in this drama this appears entirely appropriate. In pretty much every scene, even every single shot in which he appears, King Richard II is not of this world. I was a bit worried when I saw the first screenshots of this, as actor Ben Whishaw appeared rather insipid, but I was soon won over when actually watching: He is doing an excellent job portraying a king who is very conscious of being elevated far above the common world, infused with this divinity, very aware of it and not at all hesitant to let the world around him know it. In particular at the start of the play he often behaves like a spoiled brat, changing his mind on a whim, ordering others around with no regard for their feelings or even law and custom, because as King he is beyond and above all of that. On the other hand, the costumes clue the viewer in that things might not be quite as simple: on the one hand we have hard, constraining armours, but the King is dressed in loose, flowing robes.
Even as he can be cruel and inconsiderate, Richard II is introverted and sensitive, possessed of a sense of beauty and estheticism which Bolingbroke and his ilk, who are ruthlessly practical and effective, lack utterly. Both director Rupert Goold and actor Ben Whishaw keep the tension between those poles, and it is precisely this ambivalence which I liked most about this adaption. Richard II comes across as petty and rather unlikable at first, a monarch only concerned with himself and his own glory. But as the action proceeds, we realise that there is more to it, that what Richard is concerned with is not so much his own ego but the image he projects, his Kingship which, to him, is something greater than himself, and part of his tragedy is that he fails to understand that things appear differently to those around him than they do to him. The film never passes on a chance to cast its main protagonist in Jesus- or at the very least saint-like poses, but just as inevitably never fails to contrast this with the drab reality surrounding him; culminating in the scene where Richard welcomes the conquering Bolingbroke from the ramparts of his castle in a mis-en-scéne which drives the King’s divinity to the point of utter delusion and self-parody.
It is here, I think, that the viewer’s heart breaks for this king and where the balance tips from incompetent narcissist to ethereal being dragged down by the weight of the merely material world. Richard wins our sympathies as he falls and becomes a tragic figure, and if he failed as a living saint he in the achieves his divine destiny as a dead martyr. The film underlines this with its iconography but also with its colour scheme: before his capture Richard always was bathed in warm, soothing colours, gold, yellow and brown serving to contrast him to the prevailing green and blue of the English landscape. Now that he has lost the crown, he is no longer standing out but completely subsumed into the general drabness which also has lost most of its saturation, hovering on the verge of becoming monochrome. Richard, the images seem to suggest, achieves greatness only when he has lost his Kingship and has been stripped down to the merely human.
And one really cannot write about this adaption of Richard II, or indeed of any part of The Hollow Crown without mentioning the cast. Ben Whishaw gives a literally stellar performance as Richard II and is opposed by Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke who is as solid as Richard is ethereal – one can feel his exasperation whenever he comes face to face with his king, and the mixture of embarrassment and pity when he is handed the crown by his fallen adversary. The BBC did not sting on famous names for this series, and here we get Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and David Suchet as Duke of York, both in very fine form, the acting in general is on a very high level and a pleasure to watch.