Charles and I screened “The Hollow Crown,” an intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II that appears to be part of a BBC-TV remake of their classic 1960 miniseries An Age of Kings, their edit of eight of the 10 Shakespeare history plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III) into a continuous saga of Britain’s history between the fall of Richard II in 1399 and the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The listing for this on imdb.com has it as a four-part TV miniseries dealing only with the first four plays in the cycle (which Shakespeare actually wrote after the later four) and using “The Hollow Crown,” which the makers of the 1960 An Age of Kings (producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes) used as an episode title for the first half of Richard II, as the name of the entire series. This time the director is Rupert Goold (that’s the spelling on his credit), who also did the adaptation, and the story is, of course, familiar. Richard II became King of England in 1377 at the age of 10, after the death of his grandfather Edward III (Edward III had seven sons but none of them actually became King; his oldest son, Edward the Black Prince, actually predeceased him by a year), and though a regent was appointed to handle the day-to-day affairs of state, the Peasants’ Revolt happened four years after Richard II was crowned — and both sides in the revolution thought that the appearance of the King would magically solve everything.
Richard II grew up, like the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi, literally knowing no other life, and it gave him an otherworldly air; he was a great patron of art and music (Flint Castle, where he hides out for a while in the middle of the play to get away from the burgeoning revolution against him, was actually a major seat of British culture at the time, and the entry on Richard II on royal.gov.uk mentions that he gave grants to Chaucer) but a weak and indecisive monarch at a time when, following the death of Edward III after a 50-year reign, Britain really needed a strong hand. It got one in the person of Henry Hereford a.k.a. Lancaster a.k.a. Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) — the tendency of the Brits to tack titles onto their upper-class men’s names makes the dramaturgy here confusing at times: just because a character is called something else than he was in the previous scene does not necessarily mean he isn’t the same person — who in the opening scene comes before Richard with his rival at court, Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy), to accuse Mowbray of treason. Richard (Ben Whishaw) is ready to let the two knights literally duke it out on the battlefield, but just before they’re about to have at each other Richard throws his own scepter into the field, indicating that he’s ordering the combat to stop. He then sentences both Bolingbroke (I might as well call him that because that’s the name he uses most often) and Mowbray to exile, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 10 years — though a tearful plea from Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) — fourth son of Edward III and therefore Richard II’s uncle — causes him to cut Bolingbroke’s sentence from 10 years to six. (It seems odd that Shakespeare’s dialogue refers to the harsh winters Bolingbroke and Mowbray will supposedly face when they’re forced to leave England, when noble Brits who were sent into exile in that period usually went to France, which has a relatively milder climate.)
The real reason Richard wants Bolingbroke out of the country is because his father, John of Gaunt, is about to die, and when he croaks Richard plans to seize John’s estates and all his treasures and use them to fight a stupid and unwinnable war he’s started in Ireland. (Gee, a member of an hereditary ruling class getting involved in a stupid and unwinnable imperialist war that ends up bankrupting his country — where have we seen that one since?) Bolingbroke hears of this in France, comes home illegally, starts rousing his friends and allies — including the earl of Northumberland (David Morrissey), who will become quite important in later parts of the cycle — and before long he’s put together an army strong enough to defeat the forces still loyal to Richard and force him to give up the crown. In a series of intense confrontations between the two men, Richard finally agrees to the inevitable and abdicates — leaving his queen, Isabella (Clémence Poésy — that’s really her name, though the official credits left off the accents), rather bereft since it means she will lose her position as well — in the belief that Bolingbroke will leave him alone and allow him to live out the rest of his life in seclusion. Instead Bolingbroke throws him in the Tower and a couple of Richard’s former allies, including the Duke of Aumerle (played by Tom Hughes as a twink), enter his cell and assassinate him — much to the disgust of the new king, Henry IV, who (like Elizabeth I, the ruling monarch when Shakespeare wrote the play, who held off ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots for 20 years) didn’t want to establish the principle that losers in a succession battle got offed by the winners because that could as easily have happened to him.
Charles and I watched the complete cycle of the original An Age of Kings four years ago when it was finally released on DVD after moldering in the BBC’s vaults for 35 years (and we’re still waiting for the series with which the BBC followed it up: a similarly cyclical presentation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) and were amused by the cheapness and tackiness of the production (“They were trying to do Shakespeare on a Doctor Who budget!” Charles said) but impressed by the speed with which director Hayes paced the plays and the naturalistic delivery he got from his actors, who answered the challenge of Shakespearean acting: making people believe you talk that way all the time. This version was the opposite on both counts: director Goold did a lot of location shooting (in their aborted duel, Bolingbroke and Mowbray really do look like they’re about to have a fight to the death) and found some quite spectacular settings, including a garden where the trees are cropped and pruned into regular shapes that make them look like giant chess pieces placed in the middle of the Nazca lines. The costumes are generally more convincing — at least the women aren’t wearing those bizarre chiffon headdresses they were in the 1960 version — and the production values all around are far superior. Alas, the great strengths of An Age of Kings — the zippy pace and the naturalistic acting — are negated here; the actors deliver their lines with an all too palpable sense that they’re not playing characters, they’re intoning Deathless Masterpieces of Literature (and the higher up the socioeconomic scale their characters, the less naturalistic and more staid their performances are).
I hadn’t heard of any of the people in this before except Patrick Stewart (yes, I know he was a trained Shakespearean actor on the British stage long before he starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he’s still so totally identified with that role that every time he appeared I couldn’t help but think, “What’s a nice starship captain like you doing in a place like this?”) and David Sachet (who plays the Duke of York, Edward III’s third son and Aumerle’s father) — though James Purefoy’s name sounds familiar even if he wasn’t billed in the opening credits. But the performances are a bit on the stiff side and one doesn’t get the impression one did from the 1960 version that these are real people clashing over the most basic issues: politics, family, sex. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that a TV adaptation of Richard II from 2012 would do more than one from 1960 with the hints of Gayness Shakespeare threw into his text — particularly involving the commoners Bagot (Samuel Roukin), Bushy (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Green (Harry Hadden-Paton) whom Richard invites to the court and who seem to be there as his sex toys. Under Goold’s direction, Ben Whishaw plays Richard considerably queenier than David William played him in 1960 — and does far less to suggest that Shakespeare may have intended Richard to be suffering from what’s now called bipolar disorder (just as in King Lear he gave Lear an almost clinically perfect case of Alzheimer’s — those conditions may not have had names or been identified as diseases in Shakespeare’s time, but surely they existed even if people back then didn’t know what they were!). There’s a bizarre series of scenes in which Richard is either painting a picture of St. Sebastian with one of his boyfriends as a model or modeling for one his boyfriend is painting — echoed at the end in which Richard’s murder is committed, not with daggers (as royally ordered or sanctioned assassinations usually were at the time) but with arrows, leaving Richard — who in his incarceration had been stripped naked except for a loincloth — looking like St. Sebastian.
Indeed, much of Goold’s adaptation emphasized the parallels between Richard and Jesus Christ; they’re there in the play (at one point Richard compares Bolingbroke to Judas, and later he says his disloyal courtiers are behaving like Pontius Pilate) but Goold ramps them up, making up and costuming Ben Whishaw to look like the standard depictions of Jesus and even showing him leaving the throne being led on a white mule like Jesus entering Jerusalem. This Richard II is a decent adaptation of the play, marvelously staged and decently acted within the limits of the “academic” approach to Shakespeare — Charles said afterwards that the 1960 An Age of Kings had “turned Shakespeare into television” while this version sought to turn television into Shakespeare, presenting the play in exactly the sort of way I praised the makers of the 1960 version for avoiding: “approach[ing] the language far too reverently — treating it like a dose of intellectual medicine (‘listen to this, it’s good for you’) and chanting the lines in an annoying sing-song pattern, as if they’re too frightened of the iambic pentameter even to try to utter it like normal speech.” Not surprisingly, the new adaptation is also considerably gorier than the old one; though some of the killings in 1960 were shocking by the standards of the day, this one features Bolingbroke’s executions of Bushy and Green in gruesome detail (we see their severed heads fall from the cliff where the executioner kills them to the sea below) and when Henry IV foils an assassination plot and his men bring back the severed heads of the conspirators, they roll them across the palace floor like bowling balls: one detail I could have done without — though Shakespeare’s stage was actually pretty gory, complete with actors wearing bladders filled with pig’s blood so they could bleed on cue when stabbed.