‘Thus play I in one person many people’

19th August 2013

Rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Richard II with David Tennant start a week tomorrow, Tuesday (the cast get the Bank Holiday off too). And we deep in the preparations for the Live from Stratford Upon Avon broadcast to cinemas on 13 November. During the past seven days we confirmed our on-screen host (hurrah!), shot the trailer and began to film the weekly production diary which will start to appear online on 30 August. But before we begin things proper I thought it might be interesting to offer a little background about previous British screen versions of the play. To date, there has been no feature film – Rupert Goold’s highly cinematic treatment for television’s The Hollow Crown (2012) comes the closest, while the 1949 Ealing Studios film Train of Events features an amateur dramatics society performing the play’s last scenes. Including The Hollow Crown, there have been seven full-length small-screen productions so far.

1950

Royston Morley’s full-length (145 minutes) production was first seen on BBC Television on 29 October, with three subsequent live ‘repeats’ (there is no recording). Alan Wheatley played the king (he would later be known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Adventures of Robin Hood; Clement McCallin, Bolingbroke (he later played John of Gaunt in the famous 1974 RSC production by John Barton with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco); and Henry Oscar, John of Gaunt. I am indebted here (as elsewhere) to the BUFVC’s essential and exemplary Shakespeare database for the following extract from a Radio Timesreview by Lionel Hale:

Mr. Wheatley, is not, I think, the ideal Richard. The part, especially in front of the revealing camera, needs a personal youthful beauty. But he was sensitive and sincere, and rose as the poetry rose. Not all the cast spoke the Shakespeare as it demands: Bolinbroke fairly hammered out the stresses of the verse. But it was a fine production.

The total budget for a production with 36 cast was £2,000, and according to the Internet Shakespeare Editions Shakespeare website (working with information from the file WAC T5/430 at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre), ‘at one point a professional boxing match threatened to usurp the 8 o’clock time slot’. But the first showing seems to have gone ahead as planned.

1960

A decade later, the BBC’s hugely ambitious History plays cycle An Age of Kings featured the play across two episodes, The Hollow Crown and The Deposing of a King. Michael Hayes was the director and Peter Dews the producer. Back in July 2009 I wrote a detailed blog postabout these two episodes. I was a little underwhelmed by David William (above, right) in the title role, but the supporting cast impressed me greatly:

There [is] a host of other exceptional performances, perhaps most notably Edgar Wreford as John of Gaunt, Tom Fleming as Bolingbroke and Noel Johnson’s Northumberland, and also some surprising ones, including a startlingly effective Harry Percy from Sean Connery (two years before Dr No) and a pre-Z Cars Frank Windsor as the Bishop of Carlisle (above, centre). Almost hidden among the minor parts are such later luminaries as Eileen Atkins, Julian Glover and Patrick Garland.

And these were my thoughts then on this Richard II as television:

The television style is also interesting because it makes great use of developing single shots, with relatively little cutting between cameras. This is most effective in Act V Sc 5 where Richard’s musings on death and then his murder are played in just one shot that lasts for nine and a half minutes. It’s a bravura piece of performance and of camerawork, not least because of the constantly changing framing of the scene which is observed through the bars of the king’s cell.

Ian McKellen as Richard II

1970

The Prospect Theatre Company with Ian McKellen first performed The Tragedy of King Richard II at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969 before taking the acclaimed  production on a national tour. The following year producer Mark Shivas brought the staging into the television studio, along with Prospect’s Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, also with McKellen. Shakespeare’s drama was broadcast on BBC2 on 30 July and the Marlowe a week later. The presentation is penny-plain but unsurprisingly McKellen is compelling. According to the BUFVC Shakespeare, ‘The BBC Audience Research Viewing Panel Report noted a production that was ‘gripping, entertaining, moving and believable’.

1978

The BBC Television Shakespeare presented Richard II (see header image) as the second play in its first season under producer Cedric Messina. This is Michael Brooke at BFI ScreenOnline:

[The production] featured one of [the series’] most distinguished casts, with a virtuoso Derek Jacobi in the title role, John Gielgud as John of Gaunt, Jon Finch (Roman Polanski’s Macbeth) as Bolingbroke and Charles Gray and Wendy Hiller as the Duke and Duchess of York. Directed by David Giles, who would also helm many of the BBC cycle’s other history plays (Henry IV and VKing John), it was a studio-bound production that emphasised the formal aspects of the play and presented the text with minimal cuts.

In an invaluable collection of essays, Shakespeare on Screen: The Henriad, edited by Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, Charles R. Forker describes the production in this way:

… Giles’ approach to Richard II is conservative and traditional. The costuming is medieval, the delivery of the verse classically articulate and musical, the characterization conventionally naturalistic and psychologically focussed, and the physical movement, extending even to facial expressions, dignified, subtle and nuanced. Despite the deliberate artificialities of staging required by Shakespeare’s text, Giles does not shy away from touches of realism, as, for instance, the use of genuine horses in the tournament scene.

1997

The next television production was the one that I co-produced with Shaun Deeney. This was Deborah Warner’s staging for the National Theatre, first seen in 1995, which we filmed in a studio at Three Mills in London’s East End. Deborah directed for the cameras, with Hildegard Bechtler’s sumptuous gold-drenched designs. Fiona Shaw is the king; Richard Bremmer, Bolingbroke; Graham Crowden, John of Gaunt; and Donald Sinden is the Duke of York. According to Bernard Adams, who reviewed this for the Times Educational Supplement, as a production of ‘long and pitiless close-ups’ this adaptation is ‘interestingly poised between being a film and a play’. I have not watched this since it was screened on 22 March 1997 but now I feel compelled to re-visit it properly – so that will be the subject of a later post.

Meanwhile, here is Michael Hattaway writing in Shakespeare on Screen: The Henriad:

[Fiona Shaw’s performance outdid those of the other Richards we have considered. By the time the tele-film was made, this production had been maturing for two years: Debrah Warner, however, reinvented it, and found televisual conventions that were not compromises for, but enhancements to, the magnificent performance – playful but steely – she had brought into being.

Mark Rylance as Richard II

2003

Tim Carroll’s production for Shakespeare’s Globe was broadcast live on BBC Four on 7 September. Mark Rylance is the king, and this is an interesting attempt to bring the techniques of live sports coverage to the treatment of a Shakespeare play. My assessment of whether it works or not can be found in this blog post, written in September 2009 when the recording was screened at BFI Southbank.

2012

The most recent Richard II is Rupert Goold’s film for The Hollow Crown series last year, with Ben Whishaw as Richard and Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt. My thoughts about this can be found here, while this is John of Gaunt chastising Richard, ‘Landlord of England art thou now, not king!’:

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