Blogging The Hollow Crown: Richard II
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings —
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…
Unlike most of the schlock that America parades out for summer television, the BBC is debuting new adaptations of Shakespeare’s most prolific history plays: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. I have somewhat promised myself to get through as much of my complete works of Shakespeare as possible this summer and the incentive of these adaptations has certainly helped. And since Prince Hal and Falstaff represent my first experience with Shakespeare (picture a “gifted” class that I attended in fourth grade where my teacher was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt and Joan of Arc, from what I remember…) I am very excited to revisit these plays in particular.
I entered my viewing of Richard II with much anticipation: it was nearly 2 and a half hours (signifying to me that only a few bits would be excised) and Ben Whishaw, as the titular King Richard, was sure to impress. In fact, the credits were a roster of well-known talent: James Purefoy, David Morrissey, and Patrick Stewart, among other notable faces. And largely, I wasn’t disappointed. On performances alone it was great (save for Tom Hughes as Aumerle…I’m not sure what he was aiming for but it didn’t translate for me). Other than pretty much every monologue by King Richard, I also love John of Gaunt’s (Patrick Stewart) description of England, his glittering praise even making this American wonder at its magnificence:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this
Now, on to Ben Whishaw and his portrayal of King Richard. I don’t have much experience with his career (although I watched the first episode of The Hour to get a clearer, non-Shakespearean view) and he is talented, fo sho. As one would hope with a title character, he is the most compelling presence in the adaptation. I am absolutely not an expert on British history so the pampered, almost fairy-like demeanor that Whishaw exudes was in stark contrast to what I pictured when I was reading the play. According to the greatest of all quick Internet sources, Wikipedia, I guess Whishaw was going for a more historically accurate portrayal of Richard II? He “lacked manliness” and most likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, something that must be hard to avoid when you spend your childhood being groomed as king.
I do have a few gripes. First off, the lack of a defined time span didn’t really work for me. In the play, the acts serve as a mental jump for your mind that allows you to insert however many months in between that seem appropriate for the action. Richard must go to Ireland and stay long enough for Bolingbroke to return and amass his army — and more popularity, etc. Without the benefit of these time gaps, and with no indication by what is going on onscreen, it almost looks like Bolingbroke is banished only to return on the same boat the next day. Also, the transitions and staging weren’t the smoothest; this is where adherence to the play was too strict. [Cut to: beach scene; the Welsh force has given up on waiting for Richard’s return.] I just watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, so I may be coming to this adaptation with too much in the way of innovative expectation. I mean, there is a movie where all of the scenes were fully realized for cinema, versus simply moving the acting from the stage to a few standing sets and shooting locations. I almost signed audibly at the number of times action simply took place on what appeared to be the same beach in Richard II.
And finally, I think the shades inherent in Bolingbroke’s character are lost in translation from page to screen. In the play, he is a bit more murky — he claims he only wants what is rightfully his, but the idea that he might go for the crown is always there, even if it is also only in the back of his own mind. In the film. he says he only wants his due but doesn’t look surprised that Richard so willingly agrees to step aside (once again, things that are a bit clearer when you allow for the movement of time).
BUT, what I value most about this play is the way that Richard II slowly transitions from apathetic and heartless despot into sympathetic and downtrodden former king. That is very much on display in the film. I actually don’t think the play works if you miss out on this, if you don’t get through the majority of it and begin to feel for Richard in his defeat. Ben Whishaw and company aptly demonstrated this reversal of fortune and I had a grand ol’ two and a half hours.