The Hollow Crown – Richard II

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.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II

Ben Whishaw as Richard II

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.



  1. So happy to hear that a) you’ve got round to watching this and b) you liked it! I’ve meant to write about this for ages but you’ll have beautifully summarised the wonderfully artistic feel of the piece and Whishaw’s very strong performance. But what did you think of Henry IV? And Hiddleston as Henry V? Do tell!

    1. Thank you for the comment, and of course I’m very happy that you liked the post!

      I’m a bit reluctant to write about Henry IV and V after your splendid posts on those, I don’t really have to add anything of substance to those. I liked both, in Henry IV I was absolutely floored by Jeremy Irons’ performance which I think is in a category of its own. Henry V I never liked much because it always struck me basically as a propaganda piece, and what I liked about the BBC production is that they tried to get away from that. Also, I now totally get why everyone and their grandmother wants to see Tom Hiddleston play Lymond. 😉

      1. Yes, it was this series that did the Lymond thing for me too. 🙂 I think it’s more in Henry IV than Henry V, for my part anyway.

        Yes, Henry V is propaganda, you’re right, mainly pointing out how the English are so much more awesome than the French, but since this has been the general tenor of our relationship on both sides for about a thousand years, I can’t help regarding it with a certain historical indulgence. And I would forgive a very great deal for the St Crispin’s Day speech.

        Ah, isn’t Jeremy Irons great? When he’s really putting everything into a part, as opposed to just phoning in the performance, he’s such a good actor. Again, so happy you enjoyed it!

        1. For me it was more Henry V that did it – but then I always thought Lymond to be thoroughly unlikable in the first three or four novels. 😉 But either way, now I can easily imagine him doing for Lymond what Alec Guiness did for George Smiley back in the day, namely completely make the character his own. Lets keep our fingers crossed that we’re going to see it.

          I was of course aware of Jermery Irons being a great actor, just never realized he could be that great; I thought his performance as Henry IV utterly mindblowing and will definitely start seeking out more movies with him.

          And lol, the St Crispin’s Day speech was actually the reason I watched this – someone in Second Life was telling me about how he watching politicians’ speeches to learn something about rhetoric, to which I of course replied that if he wanted a lesson in rhetoric, he should go to Shakespeare instead, offering that speech as a prime example of how to do speeches right. I sent him a link to Kenneth Branagh’s performance, and then ended up watching seven or eight differnt versions of it on Youtube, after which it occurred to me that I really would like to watch some Shakespeare again…

          I plan on getting the second season of The Hollow Crown as soon as it’s somewhat cheap, and in the meantime have more Shakespeare DVDs lined up, some of which may even find their way on the blog. 😉

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