Richard II

The Hollow Crown kicks off with a strong take on tricky source material.

One great benefit of the license fee is that it makes the BBC almost heroically defiant of received commercial wisdom. A private sector broadcaster tackling a multi-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s histories (imagine that) could find ample excuses to skip over this lesser-known play and kick off with the highly-regarded Henry IV.

After all, it’s not just a lack of notoriety that makes this tragic history a tricky proposition: Richard II opens confusingly, proceeds ambiguously, and ends somewhat anti-climatically. However, it’s also graced with some of the finer speeches in the Shakespeare canon, and the ambiguities at its heart merit unpacking. Where many of the great histories and tragedies focus on the personal journeys or downfalls of princes, this play asks big, potentially explosive questions about the divine right of succession and the relationship of government to the governed. It’s little wonder that staging Richard II for a group of Elizabethan-era plotters landed Shakespeare’s company in considerable trouble with the authorities. And, after such a brush with the law, one can see why he gravitated towards safer subject matter. His next known play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, might be daring, but not in the same way as this.

Having determined to tackle this difficult but underrated play, Director Rupert Goold faced the same big decisions as his predecessors. Are Bolinbroke and Richard portrayed as similar men set at odds by circumstance, or as signifiers of different values and ages? And is Bolingbroke’s seizure of the crown a response to unforeseen circumstances, or the culmination of a premeditated scheme?

Even before turning in, the casting answered our first question. Ben Whishaw brings an ethereal quality to most of his roles, so casting him as Richard opposite the earthy Kinnear emphasises a contrast. The distinction is hammered home by the king’s flowing robes, bare feet, whimsy and Christ-like affectation, in stark contrast to the hard-headed Bolingbroke. A highly regarded 1973 production saw Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson swap the role of king and usurper from night to night – only box office logistics prevented director John Barton from staging a dice-roll at the outset of the play to determine that night’s casting. Goold has taken the opposite approach, setting the usurpation as a symbol of a sea-change in British politics – from the absolutism and otherworldliness of an artist-king who sincerely believes in his divine right to rule, to a late medieval pragmatist, a warlike primus inter pares.

Bolinbroke’s motivations, meanwhile, stay ambiguous. Kinnear registers some surprise at the course of events, but certainly no hint of irresolution, while his antagonist hints heavily at overweening ambition. There’s enough in this to doubt Bolinbroke’s oft-protested loyalty: certainly by the time he presides over the decapitation at Pontifrect castle, he’s at least a willing pawn of the rebels, and protestations to the contrary feel increasingly like performance.

Similarly, the Christ-like imagery that surrounds Richard has the air of performance about it. Some critics – most notably the excellent Bardcast – have balked at the layers of Christian and sacrificial imagery, and there is plenty of that. However, Richard actively cultivates those comparisons and images, while his more cynical subjects seem bemused or irritated by his behaviour. Seen in this context, the abundant comparisons to Christ are a useful indicator of his motivations – he believes, or at least feels that he must convey the impression, that he is God’s representative on earth. In this context, the absolutism of Richard and his refusal to respect his most powerful subjects is more understandable – even if it leads to his downfall.

For this reason – Richard’s need to project himself as a divine figure, even when all too aware of his humanity – I’d also disagree with Bardcast’s criticism of the scene in which the check-mated Richard confronts and berates his besiegers.

Carson and Geoff weren’t fans of the close-ups, capturing the anxiety in Richard’s face. However, without this intimate insight into Richard’s mounting panic, his defiance would seem really quite mad – as would his constant comparisons to Jesus. This moment shows Richard’s awareness of his own vulnerability in a way that humanises him even before his usurpation.

I would echo a third criticism made by Bardcast – the sidelining of a strong female character in the Queen, played by Clémence Poésy. In her brief time on screen, Poésy is well able to hold her own, so it’s a shame to see a modest part trimmed down even further. I also wasn’t particularly fond of Bolingbroke’s pre-duel training routine. Perhaps it was essential to establish the brutal character of the age, and maybe it was a sensible decision to show the passage of time in that awkward opening, but it put me in mind of a medieval ‘Rocky’.

These, however, are relatively small complaints about an adaptation that works far better than most people would expect. This is likely to be the definitive screen version of a distinctly tricky but very worthwhile play for some time to come.

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