The Hollow Crown

Part One: Richard II
BBC 2
Directed by Rupert Goold
Produced by Rupert Ryle-Hodges

Leased England

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:

Although the evocative title of this four part dramatisation of William Shakespeare’s first four plays chronicling the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V (the latter four plays being Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III), has actually been used before – first, in 1961, as the title for John Barton’s monarchical anthology of dramatised speeches, documents and gossip of English royalty from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria, and, second, for Helen Hollick’s 2004 novel of Anglo-Saxon England, A Hollow Crown, chronicling Kings Æthelred and Cnute – the metaphorical title The Hollow Crown seemed a promising indicator that the first instalment of this serial would be dishing up that rare contemporary phenomenon: a genuinely authentic and literarily focused historical adaptation. And Rupert Goold’s sensitively and unpretentiously directed Richard II did not disappoint, nor outstay its welcome of almost two and half hours, which seemed to pass far more quickly. This feat is all the more remarkable coming as it does in the twilight of the televisual hinterland of ‘contemporised costume drama’ that has plagued our screens for the best part of a decade or more; and whose worst textual and textural atrocities have included the unfathomably popular and implausibly teenagerish The Tudors, the fortunately short-lived Brit-popish banality of Robin Hood, the libidinous ‘mockume’ on the Pre-Raphaelites, Desperate Romantics (think the Carry On Up The Easel that never was), the poorly cast, super-pretentious mess that was The Devil’s Whore (retrospectively bowled out at almost every level by the mid-Eighties’ serial By The Sword Divided), the sorcery and saccharine of Merlin (which makes the musical, shining armour romanticism of 1967’s Camelot look grittily authentic by comparison), and the more recent wasted medieval dramatic opportunity The Pillars of the Earth. In short, historical drama has not been the BBC’s strong point for quite some time now, when once it was the envy of the world; and in the golden age of the Seventies, without peer before or since.

This is perhaps where The Hollow Crown: Richard II has managed to buck the contemporary trend of visually arresting but scripturally crass BBC historical adaptations of recent years: it has clearly taken as its blueprint the more theatrically intimate, slower paced, character-focused, verbally driven dramas of particularly the Seventies BBC canon – think, in particular, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1971), and the still unparalleled masterpiece of I, Claudius (1976), in particular; not to say, the studio-bound BBC Shakespeare adaptations of the Seventies and Eighties. But what The Hollow Crown can additionally offer the viewer is some modicum of visual spectacle, a grittier authenticity, a panoramic Mise-en-scène, outside the studio, and in this adaptation’s case, filmed entirely on location in suitably well-preserved mediaeval interiors and exteriors (albeit slightly crumbling castle ruins in the latter case). And this is where, at least in its first instalment, Richard II, The Hollow Crown has managed for the first time to combined today’s bigger budgets with yesterday’s scriptural richness, in this case, of course, courtesy of The Bard himself.

At over two hours, Richard II would appear to have followed Shakespeare’s only play composed entirely in verse verbatim, and at sufficiently careful a pace as to allow the audience – both verse-familiar and novice – to be able to absorb the lion’s share of the poetry and rhythm of the language, as sensitively and comprehensively as one can imagine it ever being possible via the televisual or filmic medium. Above all, the viewer is enabled to at least comprehend the ‘sense’ and ‘texture’ of Shakespeare’s verse, if not enough aspects of the narrative as conveyed through dialogue and soliloquy, to keep their bearings throughout, without feeling they must cling to every line in order to understand what’s happening. This is all choreographed brilliantly by director Goold, who allows the camera to remain relatively still for unusually leisurely longuers almost extinct in today’s peripatetic televisual camerawork, which again reminds one in the best way of the slower-paced, more nuanced and dramatically accumulative costume dramas of the Seventies. This patient and unobtrusive approach to the direction is perhaps best exemplified in the opening scene, which lasts along as that first scene of the play lasts, all in Richard’s courtroom, thus capturing the atmosphere and mood of perfectly, so it draws one in with a focus on script and character, in a relatively still frame which undoubtedly evokes the original stage setting of the play.

Another particularly striking choreographed sequence is the ‘For god’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings’ scene, breathtakingly shot on a beach with tide far out; the returning King, realising in his absence abroad (as indicated imaginatively with his becrowned turban-like head robe, seemingly part of his same-coloured primrose yellow gown, making him look a little like Lawrence of Arabia) the cousin he exiled, Henry Bolingbroke (played with understated grievance and resentment by Rory Kinnear), has effectively seized the kingdom from him with overwhelming support, begins to – literally and metaphorically – sink into the sands of his own making. The chosen location for this pivotal scene reminds this reviewer of the similarly important moment in the 1964 film Becket where the two sparring protagonists, Henry II (Curtmantle) and Thomas Á Becket (played by the theatrical greats Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, respectively, both deliberately cast against type) meet for their last face-to-face conversation prior to the terrible climax, on horseback on a windswept sandy beach.

It is at this point in the drama, roughly halfway through, that Ben Whishaw’s hitherto slightly affected, if effeminate portrayal of the callow King really comes into its own in a sensitively and intelligently acted series of stormy and conflictive emotional fluctuations; from hereon in, Whishaw dominates all the scenes up to his bloodily depicted murder in the Tower of London, a gory but tremendously painterly sequence, as Richard’s gangly, pallid torso is punctured with crossbow bolts against an almost black backdrop, visually echoing the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio or Rembrandt painting. As a meta-textual play on Richard’s monomaniacal addiction to the concept of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, Shakespeare wrote the part as an almost theatrically messianic pretender, and here Goold faithfully frames the wirily bearded, sallow Whishaw in Christological regalia and tones, depicting his death-scene almost like a martyrdom. But it is a martyrdom to kingly delusions of grandeur, a perennial monarchical sickness but one which afflicted the Plantagenet dynasty more than any other. Richard the Second’s feverish self-deifying was, at least politically, adumbrated by the notorious King John; while a similar tendency towards more pathological delusions haunted the later reign of Henry VI, last of the Lancaster (Red Rose) line, who spent most of his time on the throne in a state of severe neurasthenia verging on psychosis (Charles VI of France, father-in-law to Richard II, also suffered from psychosis, believing himself to be made of glass and thus prone to shatter into pieces if he fell or was struck – a fascinating psychiatric meta-symbolism).

Although Whishaw looks considerably swarthier than the more angelic contemporary portraits of the real Richard II, his waif-like physique and features fit the part. The casting is consummate in the main, though not overly ambitious; Rory Kinnear, a fine yet underwhelming actor on the whole, makes for a sympathetically drawn Bollingbroke, but an implausible – if not almost polar physiological and physiognomic opposite – to his older self regal self, Henry IV, played by the chiselled Jeremy Irons in the forthcoming Henry IV Part 1. Patrick Stewart – whose crowning performance was, to this reviewer’s mind, his turn as a physiognomically uncanny, chillingly unscrupulous Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the masterpiece episode of 1974’s Fall of Eagles, ‘Absolute Beginners’ (not to mention his menacing turn as a curly haired Sejanus in I, Claudius (1976) – puts in a quite captivating performance as Bollingbroke’s world-weary father, John of Gaunt, delivering one of the most famous soliloquies in the Shakespearean canon, with a tremulous, understated but perfectly pitched recitation. It is this speech, so frequently taken out of context and bowdlerised for its grossly misinterpreted expression of ‘patriotism’, which is more a bitterly nostalgic threnody for a past and latterly corrupted national narrative, that the timing of a dramatisation of Richard II seems so appropriate on a polemical level, almost as if, perhaps unconsciously on the part of its producers (ostensibly appearing as part of BBC 2’s Shakespeare Unlocked season), it is commenting the current parlous state of the country in 2012: a corroded democracy, increasingly unrepresentative, plundered by the Robber Barons of the Banks, reigned over by a pseudo-aristocratic upper-class prime minister (fifth cousin to our Queen) who displays an almost regal ‘sense of entitlement’ to his position.

Given our contemporary societal context, this ‘precious stone’ of a speech is ‘set in a choppy sea’ of austerity, cuts, corrupted capitalist ‘values’, where an ever out-of-touch financial elite sails far above the common struggle, and fawns and flatters to its constitutional monarch via jarringly ostentatious Jubilee celebrations. What more appropriate a moment in our social history to watch a bearded Patrick Stewart to sourly, lachrymosely and passionately croak the following:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

But no doubt such impassioned mourning for a nation’s purer soul of yore would go over the heads of most politicians and plutocrats of today (Mr Cameron will no doubt be knee-trembling ahead of the forthcoming Henry V, to this reviewer’s mind, possibly one of the most facile and forgettable of Shakespeare’s plays, replete as it is with its non-polemical patriotic battle-speech, ‘Once more unto the breach…’). Historically, the 'Divine Right' critique so central to the play, and its other subtler nuances in event and characterisation, have tended to relegate Richard II to the ranks of Shakespeare's less celebrated historical plays, which is perplexing, given the amount of iconic speeches it contains ('Let us sit upon the ground...', 'This England...' etc.), but which in themselves have transcended the reputation of the entire play itself, frequently being quoted in ill-suited contexts by many a patriotic orator; but also given its controversial but pivotal polemicon on the illusions of monarchy.

This reviewer was particularly intrigued to watch this first episode of The Hollow Crown, since Richard II is his favourite Shakespeare play, chiefly due to its intensely nuanced, delicately painted and deconstructed portrayal of a King crowned too young, and, indeed, also by accident: his father, Edward, the celebrated ‘Black Prince’, was seen to be predestined to succeed his father Edward III, but died before he could succeed him, and thus the crown passed to the ten-year-old Richard, the youngest and only surviving son of the Black Prince, thus bypassing his uncle, John of Gaunt, the youngest surviving son of Edward III). The precocity of Richard’s accession to the throne sows the seeds from his childhood onwards for his eventual doom and deposition; though his eventual monarchical monomania tends to obscure his other qualities, none particularly likeable, but still notable: such as his precariously unscrupulous political guile, and ostensible bravery when personally confronting Watt Tyler and his outnumbering men at the toxic climax of The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 (recently re-examined in Dan Jones's highly readable and beautifully illustrated Summer of Blood).

But what, to this reviewer’s mind, makes Richard II such a powerful play, is in its closing scenes, in which a boy not born to be King, but crowned through a succession of chance and accident, but, perhaps symbiotically to this inner-insecurity, the most possessed with the delusional ‘divine virus’ that sporadically dogged his dynasty, has to come to terms with his sudden dethroning, which to him above all monarchs who preceded him, inextricably entails the decrowning of his very core identity, his only identity, his only sense of self: his ‘God-consecrated’ royalty. Without his crown – now, temporarily, a ‘hollow’ one, until Bollingbroke dons it in his almost politely delayed coronation – he appears unable to recognise himself in the mirror. Richard’s powerful and strangely heart-wrenching soliloquy is a triumph of Shakespeare’s empathic insight into the nature of fragmenting identity, and is superbly delivered by Whishaw:

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face:
As brittle as the glory is the face;
Dashes the glass against the ground
For there it is, crack'd in a hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport,
How soon my sorrow hath destroy'd my face.

[Note here Shakespeare’s beautifully crafted blank verse, mostly in iambic pentameter, interspersed as it is with sporadic end-rhyme and half-rhyme, and sprung rhyme and rhythm]. That Whishaw carves out such a distinctive and nuanced Richard all his own is no small accomplishment, not only given the actorly challenge in the sheer dramatic range of the role, but also given the part’s adumbrations by former televisual portrayals by Ian McKellen, and, most memorably, a blond-wigged Derek Jacobi (who also hosted an articulate documentary on the play Richard II from the thespian’s perspective, which followed this pilot episode of The Hollow Crown).

Although this reviewer is somewhat less enthusiastic with regards to the comparatively less intense and verse-based dramatisations of Henry IV and the slightly jingoistic Henry V, he reserves judgement and, based on this first sensitively directed and acted instalment, anticipates a further three well-crafted and choreographed episodes of The Hollow Crown. Though a keen admirer of the early Seventies television adaptations, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R – both sporting the definitive portrayals of both monarchs by Keith Michell and Glenda Jackson respectively – this reviewer is not historically interested particularly in the Tudor dynasty (is, if anything, almost allergic to it given its incomprehensible dominance in both dramatic and documental television – cultivated most vociferously and selectively by ubiquitous TV historian David Starkey – historical literature of the past decade), and it was purely the sheer dramatic excellence of said halcyon adaptations which sustained his fascination. This reviewer has long wished for a serialised Plantagenet adaptation of the dramatic calibre of the aforementioned series, or that of I, Claudius, to finally grace our screens. It’s taken a very long time, literally decades, for anything resembling an authentic, character-based depiction of the Plantagenet period (albeit, in this case, only its latter half, the Wars of the Roses), to be produced for television.

The BBC Shakespeare plays of the Seventies/Eighties apart, the only time to this reviewer’s mind that there was a serialisation set in this period was in the 1965 black and white and highly theatrical television trilogy The War of the Roses, comprising Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III (presumably those plays which will follow in a second series of The Hollow Crown). Having viewed this forgotten series, this reviewer can relay that, in spite of some fine casting (particularly David Warner as the neurotic Henry VI – though also some less convincing casting, such as Ian Holm’s Richard Crookback) and acting, it is a foggy, almost turgid production, which would have greatly benefited from having been made a decade later during the peak of BBC costume drama. Prior to this 1965 trilogy, there had also been 1960’s serial Age of Kings, which included an implausibly cast Sean Connery as Sir Henry Percy, aka Harry Hotspur, a character whom we are soon to see in The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2: the pretender and challenger to the now crowned Bollingbroke’s throne.

So The Hollow Crown has not come too soon by any means, and hopefully it will be the trend-changer after over a decade of serials, films, documentaries and books about the Tedious Tudors. Whether or not the next three instalments of this ambitious new series live up to the immaculate precedent of Richard II or not – which this reviewer doubts – at least this first instalment will warrant future re-viewing and appreciation of its many nuances and merits. Amid the bunting and the fluttering Jacks of Diamond Jubilee nausea, this bold dramatisation of Richard II comes at the right time for all republicans, since its sentiments are clearly highly critical of the office of monarch, its unrealistic expectations of those thrust under its crown through accident of birth, and its ultimate distraction from national self-determination through true democracy free of kings, aristocrats and classes. It is Gaunt's patriotism of common cultural identity and history that is, in sentiment, triumphant by the end of this fascinating play, while Richard's fate is cast into the darkness of deposition and assassination, and even his usurper, Bollingbroke, lives to reign as a King haunted by his tenuous claim to the throne, having stole the crown which is ever hollow, no matter whose head wears it.

Rating: 9/10

Alan Morrison © 2012