Sarah Crompton, The Telegraph
-July 1, 2012
My memories of Shakespeare on television are all brown. What I recall from the days when the BBC last thought the playwright worthy of screen time, were muted colours, obvious “acting”, clear enunciation and an overwhelming sense of worthiness.
So my heart rather sank when I sat down to watch Rupert Goold’s Richard II (BBC Two), the first in the new, ambitious screening of the four history plays that make up The Hollow Crown, the story that stretches on through Henry IV parts one and two to Henry V, taking in civil revolt, murder, war and final triumph for the monarchy. Of the tetralogy, Richard II is the least obviously televisual. Written entirely in verse, it contains much gauntlet throwing but no actual fighting, a lot of long speeches about the divine right of kings and absolutely no jokes.
But what a sumptuous treat this Richard turned out to be. Goold, best known for his fluently visual stage productions that find new ways with old texts, proved himself a natural film-maker. He might be slightly too in love with the picturesque pastel colours in which he and his art director Jane Harwood clothed the preening King and his fawning admirers, but he knows how to make every picture tell a story, filling the screen with images that enhanced and explained the appositions of the play.
Richard (Ben Whishaw), anointed by God but burdened by his own inadequacy, banished his nemesis Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) while sitting in a richly embroidered white tent, looking like a painted picture; he ended his life in a prison so black that you could barely see his face. His usurper took leave of his father by a muddy river bank; the Queen walked in a garden of giant topiary, cultivated and ordered in a way the kingdom was not.
There were some startlingly good individual moments that used television to illuminate the text. Richard greeted the rebel army in full state, flanked by golden statues of angels; but we saw the sweat run down his face, and the panic of his isolation. When he handed the crown to Bolingbroke, we looked through it with him, seeing the empty circlet which he compared to a “deep well”. When he lay on the floor, we looked up with him at the louring face of his successor.
This visual aplomb allowed Goold swiftly to shift the focus of the action, and to bring a new hue to famous speeches. So Patrick Stewart’s restrained yet deeply felt John of Gaunt delivered the famous “this sceptr’d isle” speech in still close-up, as if in a dream; his vision of England became half memory, half imagination. When Whishaw sat upon “the ground to tell sad stories of the death of kings” the camera rested on his face, registering his petulance.
The entire thing had a quiet authority that was most impressive. Here was a thoughtful and convincing production, full of real weight and depth. Only some clichéd music, which unnecessarily underlined the big moments, spoiled the effect.
The performances also illuminated the screen. As York, David Suchet suggested a world of experience and wisdom. The scene where he met the invading army in the woods was a small masterpiece of wily resignation. Kinnear, with not much to say, used the camera to show us, quite explicitly, the moment when he realises he can be King.
Goold explicitly linked Richard with both Christ – we saw him ride to his dethroning on a white steed in white garments – and with St Sebastian, shot with arrows. Yet Whishaw never quite managed to suggest religious depth or knowledge gleaned through experience. He was camp, fretful and feeble throughout. It was a virtuoso performance, but not a moving one.
But it is a difficult part as Derek Jacobi revealed in Shakespeare Uncovered: Richard II (BBC Two), which followed the play. This was a swift jog through everything we needed to know about Richard from historical fact to current interpretation. There was quite a lot of Jacobi staring directly into the camera or wandering around, telling us what he thought, while music swelled. The most fascinating sections showed Jacobi working with actors at the Globe – and looking back on his own performance in a BBC production in 1978, when, as he noted, he had a surprisingly moonlike face. He remembered just how daunting it was to perform opposite John Gielgud, himself a famous Richard but then playing John of Gaunt.
The static sets and the style of acting were in marked contrast to the location-based naturalism we had just seen, but it was a lot less brown than I remembered.
I'm a fan of this play -- especially of the Derek Jacobi version. A surprisingly interesting production features David Birney (!) and Paul Shenar as Richard and Bolingbroke.
The first one I saw was the introduction to the BBC Age of Kings series.
Mark van Doren's great essay readily comes to mind. This was the play, he argues, where Shakespeare can first be seen to have fallen in love with poetry as his life's work.
Yes, the Birney/Shenar version looks (or, at least, sounds) impressive. But methinks the costumes might have stayed in the trunk.