Richard II: ‘sad stories of the death of kings’

7th July 2012

Let’s be absolutely clear: the opening film in The Hollow Crown, shown on BBC2 last Saturday, is a thrilling Richard II (on BBC iPlayer until 28 July). With Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear as, respectively, Richard and Bolingbroke, and as directed by Rupert Goold, this is a wonderfully confident and compelling adaptation distinguished by an astonishing central performance. The film looks great (director of photography Danny Cohen) and it sounds great (composer Adam Cork). That said, I want to ask a few questions of it and raise a concern or two, whilst also exploring a little further its images and ideas.

I need to start by outlining my (dis)qualifications for this task. I co-produced Macbeth (WNET/BBC, 2010), Rupert Goold’s first film for television, and I co-produced the television version of Deborah Warner’s Richard II (BBC, 1997) with Fiona Shaw. (This latter remains stuck in a special purgatory reserved for productions with unclear rights positions.)

At the invitation of the BBC, just after Hamlet was transmitted at Christmas 2009, I also developed in great detail a cycle of all eight of Shakespeare’s Histories. This was to have been based on Michael Boyd’s triumphant RSC productions, and the development work was undertaken for the BBC’s arts department. Unbeknownst to me, the BBC’s drama department had also started working, with executive producer Sam Mendes and Neal Street Productions, on four of the Histories. These were the plays that were preferred, and it is these that have come to the screen as The Hollow Crown.

They do things differently in drama – or at least more expensively. Macbeth, Hamlet and our recent RSC Julius Caesar were all made for the arts department, where Caesar was brought to the screen for something like one-quarter of the budgets assembled by the co-producers for each of the films in The Hollow Crown. Let it be said, however, that Richard II has spent its money well – the locations are spectacular, the period costuming is immaculate and there are a lot of decapitated heads.

Yet even this budget clearly had its limits. The armies appear under-populated (which is more of a problem when realism is an aspiration in so much else of the dressing), and the I:3 ‘lists’ at Coventry is a very modest affair. Towards the end of II:1 in the full text Northumberland speaks of Bolingbroke’s return from exile. After listing the numerous nobles who have come with him, Northumberland says that their arrival is in ‘eight tall ships, [with] three thousand men of war’. On screen, we see Bolingbroke coming ashore in a dingy with just a single oarsmen – and the boat looks all too like the one in which we saw him depart months before. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Northumberland’s lines are cut by adapters Rupert Goold and Ben Power.

Quite a lot of other lines are cut too. I:2 has gone in its entirety, as has the game of ‘gage’ challenges in the deposition scene, so that IV:1 starts at line 108. Much else has been filleted along the way, although this is perhaps most noticeable in Act I, from which some 309 lines have been cut (or some 47%, if you take the excellent Arden Shakespeare edition as your guide). One of the key casualties here is Bolingbroke’s charge that Mowbray ‘did plot the Duke of Gloucester’s death’ and that he then killed him (probably, as history suggests, with Richard’s complicity).

The cuts undoubtedly help streamline the action, and assist us in keeping clear who is on whose side. ‘Ely’ is changed to ‘Lancaster’ on a couple of occasions, to underline that this is House of Lancaster usurping the throne and setting in motion the Wars of the Roses. Lucian Msamati is particularly good as the Bishop of Carlisle (and how good to see colour-blind casting in operation here) when in IV:1 he speaks to the assembled notables about Bolingbroke’s accession:

And if you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act.

The ‘ground’ of England, which is such a key image in the play, is well-represented through a wonderful array of landscapes, including as astonishing setting for III:4 with the queen and the gardeners. The castles, however, look a bit too neat and National Trust-y to be truly convincing, and I would question the notion of playing Gaunt’s great speech in the nave of (I think) St Bartholomew-the-Great which felt far too sacral a setting.

Needless to say, Patrick Stewart nails ‘This royal throne of kings’ in a manner that will leave you marvelling. And there are numerous other performances of power and intelligence. David Suchet is a definitive York and as Northumberland David Morrissey is terrific. (It’s good too to see as the Abbot of Westminster Richard Bremmer, who played Bolingbroke is the television version of Deborah Warner’s Richard II.)

Along with Ely becoming Lancaster, another bit of eccentric place-shifting is the relocation of Richard’s incarceration and death from Pomfret Castle to the Tower of London. Nor can director Rupert Goold resist showing us Henry VI on his coronation day, even if London again looks a little depopulated, apart from the vision of a masked executioner among the multitudes cluster of costumed extras.

Before we get to  the meat of how this version has reimagined Richard II. there is one extremely odd occurrence that deeply puzzles me. In the deposition scene (which it has tot be said is brilliantly played by all), Richard prostrates himself before Bolingbroke and pushes the crown towards him along the ground. It comes to rest points upward by Bolingbroke’s feet. But then, after Richard has got up, there is a dolly-zoom (you know, like Hitchcock invented for Vertigo) as he once again lies before Bolingbroke. And as he goes down, the crown is quite clearly floating in space alongside him.

Unlike some other parts of the film, this scene otherwise is played for realism, and so this floating crown – which we also see later, but in a more obviously ‘meant’ context – is worrying. Are we to think that the question of Richard’s overthrow remains in doubt? Or is it just a corrective digital effect that did not quite come off?

As I have suggested this Richard II makes some heavy cuts throughout, but not, as might have been expected, in the Aumerle sub-plot of Act V. The plot now against Henry IV is sometimes played for comic effect, or heavily cropped, but not here. The reason, we soon realise, is that Aumerle is to be conscripted by Sir Clive Exton, a shadowy presence throughout, to be one of the murderers of Richard. Needless to say, there is nothing in the text to suggest this, but it underpins the theme of martyrdom that runs throughout the film.

Early on, we see Richard watching Aumerle, a favourite (and probably a lover), painting an image of Saint Sebastian. (Let it be said that this composition, along with a portrait of the queen, is among the most egregious of the film’s anachronisms, together with the telescope that is used to spy out Richard on his return to England.) Then the allusions to Richard as the betrayed Christ come thick and fast, including a ride on a donkey to the deposition (above) and, at the climactic moment, a swooping circular shot around the white-robed king in crucifixion pose. And at the end, Richard is shot with crossbow bolts, including by Aumerle, and falls as an agonised Saint Sebastian.

Which prompts the question, is this Shakespeare’s Richard II? To which the riposte has to be that that entails only meaningless speculation. Rather ask, is this a Richard II that is convincing and consistent and revealing and provocative? To which the answer is a resounding yes – and far more so than tonight’s Henry IV part 1. That, however, is another story – and another post.


  1. Luke McKernan says:

    Thank you for the measured and thoughtful reciew, John. I thought it a thrilling production with forgiveable oddities. held together by Ben Whishaw more than by the director, who wasn’t always sure what to do for the camera. But that shot of King Richard on his white horse passing along the mass of a castle wall was worth of Parajanov. I am greatly looking forward to Henry IV(i) (though now with a degree of apprehension after your closing remarks).

  2. “Macbeth, Hamlet and our recent RSC Julius Caesar were all made for the arts department, where Caesar was brought to the screen for something like one-quarter of the budgets assembled by the co-producers for each of the films in The Hollow Crown”

    That’s interesting and impressive. When I was harranging Ben Stephenson the other year at that BBC Drama event about the lack of classic theatre on television, he pointed to Hamlet and Macbeth as though such things were still being made and giving the impression (though I’m willing to admit that I was filling a few blanks) that they were Drama commissions. Now it turns out the only theatre commission undertaken by BBC Drama television that year was the Kay Mellor thing with Billie Piper. Hum.

    As to the budget, I’m amazed at what you were able to achieve and however much I’m enjoying The Hollow Crown, slightly disappointed that we didn’t see the RSC series. Such a shame that both projects couldn’t co-exist since they would have had rather different aims.

  3. Carole Heath says:

    I think the BBc’s adaptation of the Hollow crown is brilliant the whole productions which i have seen up until now has been such brilliant acting and so well done. I have a great interest in Shakespeare’s plays especially the histories, i have a collection of the BBC’s shakespeare’s plays filmed in the late 70’s and early 80’s. which are also well made with good actors including Anthony Hopkins Patrick Stewart Claire Bloom and many more. I also have on DVD Laurence Olivier’s Richard 111 which introduced me to Shakespeare in the early 60’s, Henry V, and Hamlet. My first introduction on the BBC to Shakespeare was called an age of Kings in the 60’s also with actors like Jullian Glover, Paul Daneman, that was a well done series as well. I remember some years ago the RSC in London doing the hollow crown on the stage. Of course some people say that the language is hard to understand in Shakespeare’s plays yes it can be but i personally think you don’t have to understand every word to enjoy it as long as you have some background knowledge of what the play is about. The characters he brought to life in his plays are so diverse i think look at Henry 1V, Richard 11, Falstaff Mrs Quickly and co. I am looking forward to Henry V i think some of the best speeches Shakespeare ever wrote Once more into the breech, and the St Crispin day speech. I often get Olivier’s version of Henry V on DVD and play it and admire his speaking of the verse such pathos these speeches require. i also think Shakespeare’s plays are just as relevant today as when he wrote them over 400 years ago. I do not always agree with some of his history plays especially Richard 111 that to me is more Tudor propaganda than historical fact and Shakespeare is to blame in some respects for blackening Richard’s character, but the play is quite brilliant with Richard as the central protagonist,. I hope to go to the Globe in London soon to see a play by Shakespeare i am looking forward to that very much.

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