The BBC’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad quartet of history plays, broadcast under the title The Hollow Crown, began with Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold and adapted by Goold and his longstanding colleague in the theatre Ben Power.
There is a saying – I associate it with John Huston, but I have seen it ascribed to others too – that 90% of your success as a director is down to good casting. Whoever said it, it has clearly been taken to heart in the Hollow Crown films, since the quality of the acting is again uniformly superb here. Likewise, the verse is again spoken with rare and enviable clarity – particularly difficult in Richard II, since the poetry is charged and allusive throughout – although I realise that a good deal of the credit for that must certainly go to Goold and Power (and Sir Richard Eyre for Henry IV) for their sensitive and expert filleting of the text.
Richard II is something of an anomaly among Shakespeare’s history plays. Shakespeare himself called it a tragedy, and it is as much a character study of the mental and moral decline of the king as it is about the king’s struggle for power with Bolingbroke. (I say moral decline because Richard saw kingship as a moral right and duty, yet he becomes increasingly passive as the play unfolds and comes to neglect those very rights and duties he was bound to uphold.)
It is a play rich in images and ideas and low on action and the film accentuates that – perhaps necessarily – with an essential stillness, at the heart of which is Ben Whishaw’s incantatory and ultimately hypnotic performance as Richard. The film’s pace is measured, its scenes careful and composed in both meanings of the word.
I have to say, I found Whishaw difficult to like at first; his Richard is fey and petulant from the beginning, indecisive and listlessly indifferent to the barely contained violence brewing in court and country. However, as the nation’s security – and with it Richard’s authority and sense of self – frays, Whishaw’s retreat from events into depression and a self-negating religious ecstasy is brilliantly conveyed.
Indeed, Whishaw’s Richard is a man ultimately torn apart by the tension between his divine authority and human fallibility, and if his self-pity is at times unattractive, the compelling sorrow of the humiliating scene in which he must give the crown itself, his crown, to Bolingbroke is wholly pitiful. He is a man martyred by the many and various responsibilities placed upon him.
Whishaw’s performance also helps make the ascent of Bolingbroke and Northumberland, in particular, through bemusement and frustration to discontent and revolt seem more understandable and less opportunistic: a reasonable response to a fraught and complex political crisis.
Film is at once a more subtle and more bombastic medium than theatre, and some of the symbolism here is overstated – Richard’s name written in sand and washed away, for example – an we probably didn’t need quite so many echoes of St Sebastian and Jesus in the portrayal of Richard II to get the point about his martyrdom. On the other hand, there was a conspicuous lack of scale in some scenes – this is true of Sharrock’s Henry V too – most notably those involving armies, and a paucity of apparent wealth. Too many dark, dank castles and threadbare tapestries made some shots unfortunately reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky: one had to suppress the occasional impression that the characters were acting out an intra-family squabble on some tiny square of land like Sark.
But for me the film’s visual eloquence did help realise the metaphorical equation of monarch, realm and state: the idea that king does not merely stand at the head of the nation, he embodies the nation. It is an early-modern cliche, but the film brought it vividly to life, showing how the king’s growing abdication of responsibility both led to and was reflected in a dissolution of the body politic: justice waived; banishment ordered and then halved in a breath; inheritances voided on a whim; the realm neglected; rebellion left to riot. Indeed Richard’s tragedy, his inevitable fall, flows from his failure to resolve the initial conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, his refusal to judge.
Equally, the film’s subtle sense of England, its coasts and hills and gardens – framed in the play by Gaunt’s famous “sceptr’d isle” speech, exquisitely delivered here by Patrick Stewart – helped inform Richard’s collapse, his turn away from the kingdom, and the price the kingdom would pay for that.
In a sense the Henriad persistently asks the question: what is a prince? Over the course of the four plays we return again and again to questions of legitimacy, authority and necessity; of loyalty, succession and power. And the question is perhaps at its most acute here in Richard II where the anointed king is wanting – and there is a legitimate rival powerful enough to act against him.
But within this intensely political framework, the plays also persist in reflecting on the small kingdoms of the family: what loyalties sons owe fathers, husbands owe wives, cousins owe each other, and so on – and how do we measure familial responsibilities and cares against those we own the nation?
Indeed, the series as a whole might be called a meditation on the vanities of power: religious, political, military, and so on, each of which serve to destroy those kings who are seduced by them. It calls to mind Updike’s observation that celebrity is a mask that eats the face; such is the vanity of office – of history – too.
Henry Bolingbroke and his son may not suffer the same tragic trajectory as Richard II, but they are consumed by their ambitions just the same.
My reviews of the other films in the series are here: Henry IV, Henry V. I have also posted an account of the Q&A with Sam Mendes, Sir Richard Eyre and Simon Russell Beale after the screening of Henry IV at the BFI.
Note: when this post first appeared, I had mis-typed Ben Whishaw’s name in a couple of places. My apologies to Ben – and thanks to @jauntystreams for pointing out my mistakes.