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Television Review: The Hollow Crown – Richard II

The Hollow Crown: Richard II (BBC; 2012)

A handsomely-mounted and textually-faithful set of television film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, The Hollow Crown was a high-profile 2012 Cultural Olympiad production of the BBC. Insomuch as any version of the Bard’s work both resonates with the great English dramatist’s language and themes and reflects the assumptions and anxieties of the time in which it is produced, The Hollow Crown explores and illuminates not only the nature of kingship but the contours of top-down power in the British national historical context. Discussion and analysis of the films will proceed here in three parts.

The series of four films commences with Richard II, the underappreciated opening movement of this historical-propagandistic tetralogy. Political legitimation of the Tudor dynasty through theatrical narrative and symbolism was a consistent undercurrent in Shakespeare’s work: Macbeth embedded flattering references to James I’s mythical descent from legendary Scottish royals, Henry VIII ended with jubilation at the birth of the future Elizabeth I and nary a word of her imperious father having her mother beheaded. Richard II, the narrative of the overthrow of a monarch, has always sat a bit uneasily in light of this explanatory paradigm. A performance of the play was infamously commissioned in advance of the Earl of Essex‘s attempted coup in 1601, which would have overthrown Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch.

Revolutionary implications aside, Richard II is a work torn between its political and aesthetic loyalties, as The Hollow Crown version demonstrates. The thoughtful, complex speechifying on the nature of kingship and power is all gifted to the play’s titular monarch, who’s really the only character in the play of any linguistic interest or consequence. Played here by Ben Whishaw, Richard is ethereal and mercurial, a king of refined, almost angelic beauty and exquisiteness. Flouncing about in verdant woods and billowing white-draped pavilions encircled by a retinue of pretty male favourites, Richard is spoken of and indeed portrayed as a ruler of divine majesty but tragic miscalculation and detachment whose focus on cultural sophistication and well-groomed magnificence (Whishaw’s hair shimmers like blown glass, and his vestments are white robes out of Lawrence of Arabia) neglects the requirements of ordinary Englishpeople, mismanaging the realm and overtaxing its subjects to subdue Ireland in another of a series of ill-fated medieval imperial wars.

In a near-comic scene of dripping water-torture revelations, Richard lands on an English beach upon his return from Ireland to learn by degress that usurper Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) has raised an army to depose him and that practically all of his putative supporters have allied with the future Henry IV against their king. Henry was the father of the legendary military hero-king Henry V and part of the Lancastrian line descended from John of Gaunt (played, all too briefly, by the always-great Patrick Stewart) that would sire future Richard-deposer Henry Tudor (Henry VII, founder of the dynasty in its final years when the play was written in 1595). Propaganda-wise, the author had considerable impetus to put forward the muscular man-of-action Bolingbroke as a legitimate and even preferable ruler to the indecisive and capricious Richard, celebrating the century of Tudor rule and anticipating a stable male-headed state to succeed the fading feminine Elizabeth.

But Richard earns Shakespeare’s artistic sympathy and gradually the audience’s as well. His rambling, sometimes hilarious stalling in the scene in which he’s asked to relinquish his crown is evidence of the fickle inconstancy that preconditions his removal. But Richard outflanks Bolingbroke and his allies symbolically even as they have their way with him in the arena of temporal power. He becomes a martyr, a tragic figure of considerable pathos, even if Shakespeare’s text and director Rupert Goold’s visuals trowel on a overthick layer of Christ imagery as the narrative reaches its conclusion. Whishaw, mercurial to the hilt, achieves a powerful contrast with Kinnear, who despite a stiff-lipped nobility also possesses a thickset frame and gapped teeth that make him seem more bus driver or dustman than king. The strong implication is that something sublime seeps out of the English crown when it is taken from Richard by Henry, and the arc of the next three plays in the tetralogy traces the new line’s efforts to reconstitute that lost sublimity in the form of heroic nationalism.

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