Monday, 2 July 2012

The Hollow Crown: Richard II - review

Last Saturday, the BBC started its Shakespearean tetralogy, consisting of 'Richard II', 'Henry IV Part 1', Henry IV Part 2' and 'Henry V'. Personally I have only seen 'Henry V' being performed and I have read none of the plays, so I was quite excited to see how it would turn out.

First of all let me start by saying that I was really impressed. I think it is quite difficult to bring a Shakespeare play to the screen. Compared to movies, the scenes are long and set in one place, there are long dialogues or soliloquies/monologues and of course, Shakespearean English isn't always easy on the ear. And then it has also to be taken into account that 'Richard II' is the hardest one of the 4 plays. It is written entirely in verse, there are no jokes in it, no battle scenes and a lot of long speeches about the right of rulers.

Episode image for Richard II

Therefore, it is a great accomplishment that 'Richard II' worked so well. Rupert Goold, known for his visual staging of plays, created beautiful "pictures". Everything seemed to fit together; the costumes, the words, the staging and the filming. For example, when Richard II talks to Bolingbrook, his enemy, he is dressed in a golden armour, studded with diamonds, and flanked by two golden angels. He seems quite impressive, giving his speech, yet then Goold shows us the sweat running down his face, his knees wobbling, his hands trembling. This is just one example of how he tried to show visually what the text is saying. I also appreciated how Goold tried to make the TV-audience part of the play, as happens when it is performed in the Globe. During the speeches and soliloquies, the camera was very close to the actors, creating the feeling that they were actually talking to you.

The acting was superb. Sarah Crompton over at the Telegraph called Ben Whishaw's performance 'a virtuoso performance, but not a moving one'. I quite disagree. He blew me away as Richard II. When he returns from Ireland, Richard is confronted with the news of Bolingbrook taking over large parts of England. In this scene, Whishaw somehow achieved switching from the frivolous, to the deeply sad and betrayed. When he starts the 'to tell sad stories of the death of kings' speech, I felt truly sorry for Richard, which is quite an achievement since Richard is a character that generally feels very sorry for himself.  Throughout the entire play, Whishaw's performance was poignant and immensely interesting to watch. 

The same can be said about all the other actors. The BBC truly gathered an amazing cast for this tetralogy. This week we enjoyed the brilliant performance of Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet (who I will always know and love as Poirot) and Patrick Stuart. I remember seeing Kinnear as Hamlet in the National Theatre and thinking he was perhaps too serious. Yet he was great as Bolingbrook and worked very well with the camera to show the character's emotions. 

What I enjoyed a lot as well was 'Shakespeare Uncovered: Richard II' which was presented by Derek Jacobi, himself a Shakespearean actor. In an hour, he explained Richard's character, his own experience playing Richard II in his youth and he went through the play with some Globe actors. Perhaps I enjoyed the latter a bit too much since one of the actors was Jamie Parker, who I've seen as Henry V in the Globe and I have developed a slight Shakespearean crush on him. It was great to see the actors discuss their characters, their motivation and then see them act it out again.

On one point I did disagree with Jacobi. Jacobi, apparently, is convinced that the plays weren't written by William Shakespeare but by the Earl of Oxford and that Shakespeare was simply allowed to take credit because it was below an earl to write plays. I think this theory is ridiculous. Jacobi says the Earl's education and background creates a much more likely author for the plays, naming its expertise in courtly traditions and warfare as an example. However, I believe that Shakespeare's characters are way too human and "normal" to be written by someone of nobility. It would have been nearly impossible for a man of high ranking to empathize with the working classes. Yet Shakespeare's plays are filled with humour, sexual innuendo and characters who portray common emotions. Next to this, there is absolutely no historical proof for this claim and the Earl died before some of the plays were even written. Hop over to this article from the Guardian about the movie ('Anonymous') made about this claim. 

Did you see The Hollow Crown: Richard II? If yes, what did you think?


  1. I wish they show this here in the States too! I love adaptations like this and BBC always has good ones.

    1. Apparently it will air officially on PBS in the USA later in 2012, or early 2013. So maybe you get to catch it then!! I hope you do, because it's really good!! :)