Year of Shakespeare: Richard II on the BBCHistoryTelevisionYear of Shakespeare

  • Pete Orford

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Richard II, dir. Rupert Goold, 30 June 2012 on BBC 2

By Pete Orford

It comes as quite a shock, after the bounty of international Shakespeares this year, to come across a production that’s a) in English, and b) relatively straight-forward in its approach. No reimagining or recontextualising here – quite the opposite. The histories are often entrenched in the time in which they are set, and the temptation when producing them for TV is to follow the footstep of Charles Kean and the pictorialists, interjecting scenes of historical pomp and grandeur to plump up and pad out the story. Thus, in this Richard II, there were numerous invented scenes without dialogue – Bolingbroke and Mowbray training for battle, the Queen sailing away – while key textual points, most noticably Richard’s involvement in his uncle Thomas of Woodstock’s death, were cut.

But while Kean was pursuing historical accuracy, I suspect the aim here was clarity: get rid of the historical baggage, the long-wrangled political ties and genealogy that can overwhelm the plays, and focus on the here and now (or rather, the here and then). Past and future were dismissed with, hence the lack of Woodstock and, surprisingly, young Hotspur. By cutting these moments it allowed more time for Richard’s pet monkey (no, I don’t understand, either), but also an increased presence of the Queen (Clémence Poésy), looking mutely on both in the first scene and at the joust, establishing her relationship with the King in preparation for their dramatic farewell; not to mention Exton (Finbar Lynch), who usually pops up just in the last act, but here was seen first as Lord Marshall and then lingering throughout and giving many a significant glance as though to say “I will be significant later on” (Ironically, in the end, he wasn’t – in this production it was Aumerle who killed Richard, with Exton merely being the one who egged him on).

This focus on immediate events, though welcome, is nonetheless rather ironic for what is, ultimately, episode one of The Hollow Crown; I would have expected more looks ahead to subsequent parts. The crown itself, fabulously bejewelled, featured prominently throughout, with lingering shots upon it as though it were the one ring to rule us all. And there were certainly many jewels in the crown of this production: Ben Whishaw managed to convey the power, hypocrisy and frailty of the king, Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke was suitably solemn and noble, David Morrissey’s Northumberland gruff and angry and the uncles York and Gaunt (David Suchet and Patrick Stewart) generally peeved with the many failings of the next generation.

This being the twenty-first century, where HD and widescreen are the norm, the look of the production was rich in visuals and panoramas. But the gloss of this production was also its downfall, because as fabulous as everything looked, and as great as the acting was, the production felt a little, ahem, hollow. When we see a crowd of eight people on the stage we willingly accept it to be representative of a multitude, but on television, especially when it is shot as this was on real location with high quality film, then it looks like, well, a crowd of eight people. By trying to be epic in looks and style, the lack of extras and props at various moments only became the more conspicuous: Bolingbroke and Richard returned to England on a row boat; Bolingbroke was met by three noble lords who approached without a train, and Bolingbroke’s army was barely enough men for a game of five-a-side.

So it was at its best when it stopped focusing on panoramic shots and non-existent crowds, and instead focused on the immediate interaction between one or two characters – Whishaw, for my money, was at his best when giving up the crown, stripped of his title yet endowed with a newfound depth of character. In contrast, the attempts to liken the deposed king to Christ felt rather laboured. Richard starts as king and becomes a man; his tragedy is also his triumph. To invert that fall from grace by promoting him to the son of god at the play’s close felt like a misjudgment. It could also be argued that the epic approach was doomed anyway as, to be honest, it just jarred with the text: Richard II is not epic, it is confined, claustrophobic and anti-climactic, with battles or physical conflict always averted, in stark contrast to Henry IV Part One or Henry V, both of which, I’m sure, will fare better from this production’s approach.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.