As much as it’s nice to see the BBC having a high arts year, with the first of this new set of Shakespearian adaptations coming just a few weeks ahead of the BBC Proms season getting underway, I can’t say that I was as thrilled about this adaptation of Richard II as I wanted to be – or indeed as most other reviewers seem to be.
It’s known as a ‘difficult’ play to dramatise for the screen, being one of the more talkie Shakespearian works. I’m by no means a Shakespeare expert or aficionado and can only speak from my own poorly-informed preferences, but I will say that I’ve always found Richard II an underrated favourite in how it deals with interesting themes about leadership, power, monarchy and the supposed divine right to rule – all of which are still very relevant to modern political rulers of today.
The play does so by systematically stripping away those facets of the titular character scene by scene, which puts a lot of emphasis on getting the portrayal of Richard II himself right. Unfortunately – for me at least – the 2012 film version didn’t succeed in this regard. As played by star-of-the-moment Ben Whishaw he came across as a fey, feckless and ethereal character: he reminded me of Johnny Depp’s take on Willie Wonka for Tim Burton, and I believe I recall reading that both performances had their basis in using pop megastar Michael Jackson for inspiration. But whereas Depp’s Wonka was able to suggest a dark edge and a genuinely unnerving quick and dangerous temper under the surface, Whishaw’s Richard II came across to me as a rather weak, harmless and irrelevant character who would totter at the first push. It was hard, then, to understand the bloody anger at the King that the rebels worked themselves up into, and as a consequence the balance of the original text felt lost: we are meant to be onside with the terribly picked-upon Richard from the very start, as odd and weird a king as he might be, and so see his downfall as a terrible thing wrought by nasty, uncouth turncoats.
For me, that approach denied the dramatic arc of the character envisaged by Shakespeare – of how the monstrous, warping arrogance of kingship is stripped away to reveal a normal man underneath, whom we then can identify with after all, as he becomes a better person more at ease with himself now he is no longer king. But with this Richard not being terrible to start with, and with his post-downfall persona still somewhat of a whining spoilt brat not really understanding what’s happened to him, this adaptation tells an entirely different story from what I’d always thought the original text intended. I’m sure a lot of people will like that and find it equally as valid a story; but as far as I was concerned, it made for a flat central plot and a lost opportunity.
This is not Whishaw’s fault: while it’s not an interpretation that works for me, his performance is certainly an interesting and very well constructed one, and entirely in line with the intentions of the writer and director Rupert Goold who from the start works hard to make us feel pity for Richard, and continues to do so right up to the filthy Christ-like wretch in a loin cloth lost in dank castle dungeons that we are presented with toward the end. The film goes so far as to make very obvious a ‘sub’ text identifying Richard with Saint Sebastian, so that by the time the deposed king meets his fate we are clearly expected to be on board with his martyrdom and canonisation. I have to say, I bristled at such obvious manipulations and deviations from the original play, but others won’t be so precious and will doubtless feel differently.
There was an even bigger deviation from canon concerning the character of young Aumerle, Richard’s devoted friend and supporter (and, this film seems to hint, perhaps something even more) who narrowly escapes being executed for treason by the new king. That’s where Shakespeare leaves him, but in this adaptation he is suddenly picked up for an encore replacing Sir Piers Exton as Richard’s assassin, of whom the new king spits: “Though I did wish him dead, I hate the murderer.” That’s a marked change for the character and consequently grafts on quite a different sub-plot from that which Shakespeare had in mind, and I wasn’t happy about such an ‘improvement’ on the Bard’s work – even if Shakespeare’s own late introduction of the previously unknown Exton in the ante-penultimate scene of the play was hardly his best dramatic construction, it’s fair to admit.
In all, possibly the biggest problem was that this felt a very cut-down version of the play with an awful lot of the original text excised for brevity to fit the two hour twenty minute running time. Unfortunately in the 21st century we don’t appear to have attention spans capable of anything longer, at least not in the minds of filmmakers and broadcasters. It’s possible that with more time the character of Richard II would have become more rounded, the subtext less overt, the shift of Aumerle’s arc less jarring.
This is not to say there wasn’t much to appreciate in this production. The early scenes centring on a feuding Mowbray (a sadly underused, snarling James Purefoy) and Bolingbroke (an excellent Rory Kinnear) were done just right and handsomely shot as they approached their deadly joust; it managed to do a near-impossible job of introducing a complex line-up of characters quickly and clearly. The production overall was very polished and presented many striking directorial touches: the scene where Richard II confronts the rebels led by the Earl of Northumberland (a brilliant David Morrissey, the real hard man of the plot) included the striking close-up details of sweat rolling down Richard’s face as he stood alone before the threat with nothing to shield him except his sense of divinely-granted majesty. However, some other moments such as the deposition scene in which Richard has to hand over his crown were perhaps a little too over-thought and stylised for their own good.
There were predictably top-notch performances from old theatrical hands David Suchet and Lindsay Duncan as the Duke of York and his wife, and naturally Patrick Stewart – without whom no BBC Shakespearian production can possibly be attempted – was first-class as John of Gaunt, thereby getting to recite a cut-down “this scepter’d isle” speech early before exiting. This supporting cast and set of characters was so strong in this production, in fact, that I found myself almost resenting Richard getting in the way of knowing more about them – especially in the final scenes, which centred on the new King’s growing horror at what was being done in his name as the bodies piled up. I could have watched a couple of hours of Rory Kinnear without any problem at all, so compelling was his turn as Bolingbroke-turned-King Henry IV.
Sadly, for the story in which the character does take centre stage, Kinnear himself is usurped from the throne. The part of the now-elderly Henry IV is taken over by Jeremy Irons for the next instalment of the four-part Hollow Crown season. It’s hard to fault the star-wattage of that piece of casting, and it will be interesting to see what sense of carry-over the two actors are able to achieve for the character.
The Hollow Crown is currently showing on BBC2 on Saturday nights through to July 21 and includes Henry IV – Part 1 and Part 2, and the well-known patriotic paradigm Henry V. Richard II is currently available on the BBC iPlayer through July.