The Hollow Crown, Part I: Richard II

Richard II, played by Ben WhishawThe Hollow Crown is the BBC’s daring new production of four of Shakespeare’s history plays: Richard II; Henry IV, Parts I and II; and Henry V. Of these four plays I had read them all, but only seen Henry V, and I doubt I’m alone. Henry V is a grand drama of heroes, featuring the king that the English have enjoyed idolising for centuries, presented rousingly by Shakespeare, speaking some of his most famous speeches outside of Hamlet. Winston Churchill looted the St Crispin’s Day speech to great effect. The only history play that rivals it for modern popularity is Richard III. Interestingly, John Roe argues convincingly that Shakespeare draws heavily on Machiavellian traits in both plays to create two intensely charismatic, clever political movers in Richard III and Henry V, raising interesting questions about what separates a celebrated king from one reviled by history. But the popularity of these two plays should not eclipse the others. The three plays that lead up to Henry V are just as quotable, just as much part of the substrata of our culture, even for those who have never read (or at least, in our school system, never enjoyed) a Shakespeare play.

It’s a daring move to present four history plays in lavish productions, performed both by experienced actors established as excellent and up and coming performers like Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston. It’s easy to churn out productions of favourites like Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but to stand up behind four history plays, asking the audience to sit through three unfamiliar stories before getting to the glitzy one they think they already know… Well, it was either going to be critically acclaimed to the roofs, or a disaster. Having watched Richard II I can now say without a shadow of a doubt that it will be the former. The BBC has put all their talent and money behind this. The costumes are lavish and appropriate. The cast is star-studded, but not just for names; in Richard II we see expert performances from (amongst others) Patrick Stewart, Lindsay Duncan, David Morrissey and James Purefoy, as well as the phenomenal Ben Whishaw, who has won my heart.

At first I was unsure – one is always wary, with a Shakespeare play; one has seen so many performed badly. And Richard II is not my favourite play to begin with. I’d read it with intellectual interest only, slogging through it in my revision for my Shakespeare paper at university. Thankfully, the actors got a lot more out of it than I had on that first perusal. And that’s the key. There are two basic reasons virtually all the productions of Shakespearean plays I’ve seen fail:

1) the actors are so caught up with the weight of speaking Shakespeare that they read the text like they’ve sat in front of a mirror trying to find a way to speak the lines that both carries the weight of the centuries and yet doesn’t simply sound like all the great actors that came before them, so much so that they fail to treat the text like a play, full of characters and meaning and motivation. If the actors don’t understand the text they can’t help but fail to convey it to the audience; they can’t help but give merely an impression of solemn droning, or faintly ridiculous ‘edginess’ that is shallow at best.

2) the actors are too concerned with the fact that they are speaking iambic pentameter. They speak the lines like see-saws, showing that they understand the rhythm of the text, but again divorcing the meaning from the speech with unnatural emphasis. The thing about iambic pentameter is that Shakespeare did that for you. The rhythm is the rhythm of the words as spoken normally. They don’t need that rhythm to be overemphasised. Speak the lines, find the feeling, and the rhythm will come where it’s needed.

Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

Anyway. Some people will completely disagree with me on that second point. Laurence Olivier is famously praised for doing exactly what I dislike. Oh well. I mention it because it is not a failing of this production. A few actors wobble into one error or another in the first scene, but it’s brief and slight. Every actor is far above par, and once the play gets properly underway it becomes utterly stunning. Patrick Stewart and Ben Whishaw stand out for exceptional praise. I have long adored Patrick Stewart – of course I have, I’m a geek and he’s Captain Picard. But we all knew he was a Shakespearean actor besides, and I’d enjoyed his Claudius in the wonderful David Tennant production of Hamlet. That performance was nothing to this, however. Stewart’s final speech as Gaunt is incandescent with the qualities that show a man who really understands the text he speaks. It’s a dramatic scene, as the old man stands up to the King to chastise him in the hope of bringing him to his senses, knowing that he could be killed for speaking so, but braving it out because he is dying anyway. It would be easy to turn his speeches in this scene into a mere storm of words, angrily laid against the king’s deaf ears, but Stewart finds their meaning, finds their notes of pleading, of honesty, of quietness as well as noise. He has not practiced these lines in front of his mirror thinking about how they should be said; he has read the lines, reflected on what they mean and why the character is expressing himself as he does, and he delivers a tour de force – speaking from the character and not simply from dry text.

Ben Whishaw did not have me convinced at first. It’s an interesting part to play, but a hard one. Richard II was an extravagant spender, rumoured to be gay, often presented as petulant, childish, and camp. Whishaw’s initial presentation seemed distant and effete. I was concerned. But as the film progressed the character unfurled in rich completeness, revealing to me aspects I had missed in my frantic, pre-exam reading. This is a weak king, no question, and an arrogant king. He neglects his wife in favour of his male companions and he festoons himself in the trappings of power whilst failing to act on the responsibilities of power.

Richard in his fluffy robe banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke

Richard in his fluffy robe banishes Mowbray and Bolingbroke

We open with Richard sitting in judgement on Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) and Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy), Bolingbroke having accused the latter of treason, the other denying the charge and demanding answer for the slander. Richard cannot bring himself to condemn either and requests a truce, but he doesn’t have the command of presence to enforce this, and he has misjudged the strength of feeling and question of honour in the case. Acquiessing, he orders a duel, but ultimately he cannot bring himself to allow this to go forward, either. He halts the fight before they can hurt each other and banishes both men. The decision is in some ways kind-hearted, but it satisfies neither man, and seeds bitterness in the loyal Bolingbroke. In this scene, Richard is clad in a flowing, pale robe, with fluffy trim. It can be read as effeminate and soft, but it is not purely camp. The question of Richard’s sexuality hangs over the play, but one never gets the sense that his weakness stems from his sexuality, if he is gay. Rather, as Whishaw comments in an interview, it is more that Richard doesn’t really see himself as a part of this world. He sees himself (and rightly so, in the eyes of those at the time) as partly divine, governing with divine right. According to the documentary that followed the film (which incorporated the interview with Whishaw) Richard II was the first king of England to command that all should call him ‘majesty’.

There’s an arrogance to that, and yet, in some ways it’s hard to pinpoint how it is arrogant. It might be hard for a modern audience to comprehend the idea of a semi-divine ruler – absolute in power because that power is ordained by God – and hence the weight of the central drama of this play: of just what a thing it is to depose a king, let alone kill him. But throughout the film imagery connects Richard with Christ – through a strange restaging of the crucifixion that seems to transfix Richard early on, which is later echoed in Richard’s death scene; Richard standing with his arms splayed, as though on the cross, as he contemplates giving up the crown; Richard lying in his coffin, in a loin cloth, his folded limbs and skeletal form recalling iconic images of Christ – so that when we are presented, first with his utter shock at being betrayed, and then with his anguish at being forced to give up the crown, we can well understand how wrong, how inappropriate everything about this is.

Unquestionably, Richard is a poor ruler. He managed his money and his court poorly and he failed to have the strength of personality to keep his people with him or lead his people in battle. Whishaw shows us his very human weakness, his movements ones of nervous anxiety, his open weeping uncomfortable to watch. Yet one cannot help but see that there is something very wrong with the idea of a living king offering up his crown to another. Wrong in the emotional and religious sense that it would have been felt as at the time, and frankly dangerous, politically. If Richard was ordained by God, then no matter what he does with his metal hat it doesn’t seem like that power is his to give away or Bolingbroke’s to take. It cannot help but be a constant doubt in anybody’s mind, so that even as Richard openly weeps in the throne room, utterly humiliated and with very little dignity, it seems equally inevitable that this humiliation be felt not only as a slight against Richard the man, but a wrong against the crown and the nation itself. Richard is not simply an alternate power centre – if that were all he were he’d have found it difficult to retain any loyalty. Richard is a symbol. Richard is the rightful king.

Thus, a clever production, artfully directed and exquisitely performed, can bring someone like me, who isn’t sure we should even have the light-touch monarchy we have today, can be brought to understand the drama of a play that hinges on concepts almost completely foreign – from another culture and another age.

Isabella Laughland as the Lady in Waiting to Queen Isabella

Isabella Laughland as the Lady in Waiting to Queen Isabella

Beyond the central action, though, there are other points that merit discussion. I was pleased to see that people of colour were included amongst the cast, and not simply as servants. Although members of the English nobility of the time would all have been white, Shakespeare himself used the foil of distant, cosmopolitan Venice to introduce two black noble characters (in Othello and The Merchant of Venice), so I don’t think we can call it anti-Shakespearean. Moreover, as Geoffrey Tennant says in Slings and Arrows ‘Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we!’. Yet there are still those who feel like Shakespeare should somehow remain white and British. I call that poppycock. Although both characters were relatively minor, and although two is still not a very high number, I’m in favour of seeing more variety in the faces that perform our most cherished plays. Shakespeare is enjoyed throughout the world, translated and performed in more languages than I can even guess at. The idea that British actors who happen not to be white should be barred from speaking these wonderful lines in a British performance is silly. If Shakespeare was a genius who understood and speaks to all people, all people should be considered to play his roles.

I also very much enjoyed the performances of the female characters. They were not given a great deal of screen time, but what they had they used exceedingly well. Lindsay Duncan, as the Duchess of York, passionately pleading for her son’s life, makes it believable that she would win out even though her own husband has spoken against her and the king is initially inclined to dismiss her as a woman. It is also perfectly matched by the tone of angry dismissal with which she treats her son once she has secured his safety. Yes, she is the mother, become the lioness to save her cub, but she is not the emotional woman overcome with weeping and a biological imperative to save her young. She is furious with him, but nonetheless she keeps her wits about her and does exactly what she needs to do to keep him alive, letting him see her anger only when she no longer needs to keep him calm enough to ensure that he will behave. It’s deftly done.

Clémence Poésy as Queen Isabella

Clémence Poésy as Queen Isabella

Clémence Poésy’s quiet grief at her empty marriage is as haunting as Duncan’s pleading is passionate. In every frame she reminds us that it is not only the crown that is hollow. And yet she is not simply a crumpled flower. Given opportunity to defend her king she shows that she can be fierce. One senses that were the crown on her head she would not have been so weak. Her moments alone with her lady in waiting are touching and nuanced even in their brevity.

There is very little I can say in complaint about this production. Rather, I find myself thinking that if this is what they achieved with Richard II, I can’t wait to see what they do with the other plays. I have a feeling it’s going to be magnificent.

If you missed it this evening (or last night, as I have been writing this review for a couple of hours, now) it’s still available on iPlayer, for people in the UK. I assume this will be until seven days after the last episode airs, but it doesn’t say yet. It’ll be up for four weeks. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of the cultural events of 2012, get in on it.

9 thoughts on “The Hollow Crown, Part I: Richard II

  1. I agree with all that, but on your point about productions of Shakespeare plays, it was interesting to see parts of the 70s (Jacobi) version of Richard in the documentary that followed. Though it was only snatches of it, I got the sense of it being in the ‘look at me, declaiming Shakespeare’ style and very different to the way it had just been done.

    Mind you, some of that could just be a legacy of having recently seen the Frasier episode where Jacobi plays an aging Shakespearean ham.

    • I don’t know. I thought they showed clips from a number of interesting looking productions that didn’t look like they failed of my usual Shakespearean complaints, the Jacobi one included. The induldgence in Jacobi’s mad ideas about the widely discredited Oxford theory in that program drove me potty, but in general I count him as one of our foremost actors, and very accomplished in Shakespeare. To me it didn’t seem like he was simply declaiming Shakespeare, but it’s a topic on which mileages vary endlessly…

  2. Sorry but there were not Black people in England in the Middle Ages, how about we have a remake of La Amistad with the slaves beinge White?

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