*. This isn’t a play that gets produced that often today, outside of the tetralogy of which it is the first part (the other parts being 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V). Historically, however, the four plays weren’t packaged together until relatively recently. It’s that group package that was on tap here though, as this film kicked off a miniseries that went under the name “The Hollow Crown” (the reference is taken from one of Richard II’s lines). They might have called it A Game of Thrones but that was already taken.
*. It’s a shame the play isn’t better known, as it’s always been a personal favourite of mine. A lot of it is overwritten and too clever (it’s early and Shakespeare hadn’t quite hit his stride), but that fits with the subject matter. Richard is too fond of talking, and too self-regarding in everything he has to say. He indulges in verbal preening almost as much as he likes inspecting himself in a mirror.
*. It’s also a weird play in terms of its dramatic arc. It’s all falling action. The entire play is a series of let-downs and disappointments. The aborted joust. The battle between Richard and Bolingbroke that is over before it gets started because Richard’s side doesn’t show up. The two big deposition scenes where Bolingbroke literally does nothing while Richard self-destructs. There is no real climax. Indeed, quite the opposite.
*. Still, I like the play, and I wasn’t expecting to like this film version as much as I did. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.
*. What makes it so good? In the first place the cast. And especially the youngsters. Ben Whishaw owns the role of Richard: cultivated, pretty, vain, and slim. It will be hard to replace this performance as definitive in my mind.
*. There were other options available. Richard can be played as more of a bitchy drama queen than a blubberpuss, someone nastier and more dangerous, but the decision here taken by director Rupert Goold was to have him be a cross between Christ (the Christian iconography comes close to being overdone, down to the final appearance of Richard as Man of Sorrows or St. Sebastian) and . . . Michael Jackson. Because isn’t the pop star-celebrity a kind of modern-day royalty? One whose rise and fall we groundlings love to follow? Whishaw set out to channel Jackson’s eccentricity, otherworldliness, and love of spectacle, not to mention his ambiguous sexuality and monkey Bubbles. It’s a magical, mystery brew.
*. Then there’s Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, a role that is as much about reserve as Richard’s is at overacting. Much of the time he simply has to be an audience to Richard’s self-destruction, but there are deep currents running below the surface. I love the scene where Richard descends to the base court and talks of giving up the crown to the blank Kinnear, which leads to his (Bolingbroke’s) dawning sense of what is now possible. Look at his face as Richard walks away from him at the end of that scene. You can see him thinking to himself about what might be, about the power that is now about to be placed in his hand. And yet he can’t overplay such a moment. He can’t show the kind of exasperation that David Morrissey’s Northumberland, for example, responds to Richard with. That wouldn’t be politic.
*. The old guard are on hand too — Patrick Stewart as Gaunt and David Suchet as York — and they’re fine. But really this play belongs to the next generation, and they are terrific.
*. The other reason I like this version is that it is a movie. Goold didn’t want to just produce a filmed play. Instead he makes use of locations and various cinematic techniques throughout, and does so quite effectively. It’s by no means a lavish production, but it works.
*. As an example of film vs. theatre, note how often the big speeches — not just the big scenes but individual speeches and soliloquies — are broken up through editing. This is very much the idiom of film. Even as film-savvy a director of Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh likes the long take, keeping the camera in motion but letting his actors play a scene uninterrupted. But here even the short speeches are cut into pieces. Look at Richard addressing his usurpers in his golden armour and note the number of cuts Goolds makes and the use of giant close-ups to different locations on his Oz-like head. Or Richard’s final soliloquy in prison. I think most directors would let an actor play that part straight through, but here again it’s cut into film units, defying the stage.
*. Another part of making this more a movie than a filmed play are the cuts they make to the text. Overall they’re pretty faithful, though some parts have been streamlined. There are, for example, no references made to the death/murder of Gloucester. And the role of Exton in killing Richard is taken over by Aumerle. This is probably the biggest liberty taken, but it’s been done before (at least on stage) and it makes a kind of sense while making the story a little tighter. With a running time of two and a half hours they can then afford to allow other parts of the play more room to develop.
*. It seems every generation has to have its own Shakespeare. Not just in terms, to take the most common example, of a new political emphasis given the plays, but in every technical aspect of their production. Fifty years ago I don’t think audiences would have cared much for this Richard II, or would have entirely understood it. He belongs to our century.