While I love reading Shakespeare for his stories and language, I am rarely able to sit through an entire play performance unless it’s Kenneth Branagh doing something weird and wonderful with them on film.
So the main reason I watched this adaptation of Richard II is that I had read somewhere that Kevin Spacey, who had played the part at the Old Vic Theater and across England on tour, credited it for helping him prepare for Francis Underwood in House of Cards. Primarily for the long soliloquies delivered straight toward the audience, but also because of this intensely-flawed character, who eventually fell of his own doings.
Let me say this: It blew me away.
I also realized that I had, till now, confused the II with the hunchback Richard III. And, despite the fact that this adaptation only had two minor female characters, I was riveted for the entire two and a half hours. Let me also warn you: as beautiful as that montage trailer clip looks, this is not anything like the popular Showtime series, The Tudors, as this one stays true to history (meaning: no gratuitous sex or violence, sorry).
BBC 2 screened the entire series in the UK as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad — cultural events that ran across the country to celebrate the 2012 Summer Olympics. It covers the following plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Collectively, these are known as Shakespeare’s Henriad plays. Not only is Richard II usually the least-known and least-performed, but it is also often the one left out. Yet, critically, it sets the stage for the rest.
Each of the adaptations for this series was directed by a well-known British stage director and shot entirely in the UK. Rightly so, for Shakespeare intended the Henriad plays to be a patriotic tribute to England and the rulers who shaped her destiny for hundreds of years. Rupert Goold, who had earlier won the Olivier award for directing Macbeth (with Patrick Stewart) took the direction helm here. As the first film adaptation of Richard II, it won several film awards, with Ben Whishaw (Freddie Lyon in The Hour, John Keats in Bright Star, and Q in James Bond’s Skyfall), taking home the BAFTA’s Best Lead.
Written by Shakespeare around 1595, the story is of the last two years of Richard II’s short life — from 1398 to 1400. He had come to the throne at the age of ten, so the first few years of his rule were through a series of councils led by his uncle, John of Gaunt. The political machinations of that courtly community, the young King’s own lack of experience and the handful of flattering courtiers who shielded the King closely, giving him ill advice — all of these aspects came together to cause a few crises. The results were that he was not well-liked among his subjects for the rash actions he took against them, often misinformed about the goings-on across his kingdom and, eventually, deposed and killed.
When the play opens, we see Richard II sitting on his throne at Westminster in full regalia. His beliefs that royalty comes from the Divine and is imbued with mystical powers, have given him something of a Jesus complex. He often makes decisions on fancies and whims, believing that they come to him from the Divine. Whishaw demonstrates all this very well with every acting device — flourishing his kingly robes, casting about haughty expressions, expansive gestures, and staring eyes, all the while speaking in airy tones (and yes, somewhat effete) as if from another world.
As he arbitrates a dispute between two of his Lords — Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear, an award-winning stage actor) and Mowbray (James Purefoy, who was Mark Antony in the HBO series, Rome) — he is rather lofty in his flowery eloquence and does not see through to the heart of the matter to be able to deal with it in any satisfactory way. Finally, he allows for a grand duel even though a frustrated Gaunt (the one and only Patrick Stewart) objects. Unlike in the text, we don’t get to understand the nature of the dispute except that Bolingbroke and Mowbray are accusing each other of treason towards the King.
At the duel scene, after a certain amount of pomp and pageantry, the court watches with bated breath as Bolingbroke and Mowbray, fully-armored, charge towards each other on horses with their chosen weapons. At the last minute, the King throws down his scepter to stop them. Another royal whim. He then banishes both of them from England with no explanation for the difference in their sentences — Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years. Even as he does so, he changes his mind and reduces Bolingbroke’s banishment to six years as a concession to the old father, Gaunt. The whimsical and indecisive go-stop-go-stop confusion that he creates with this particular act of (in)justice foreshadows his coming downfall at the hands of Bolingbroke.
After the banished Lords leave England, Richard needs to deal with an uprising in Ireland. He raises the needed money by further taxing and fining his subjects, poor and rich alike, considering it his divine right and royal prerogative to do so. He goes so far as to take all of Gaunt’s land and money on the old man’s death, even though it is rightfully Bolingbroke’s inheritance. When this news reaches the exiled Lord, he returns to England with the help of a few loyal friends. Of these, the Earl of Northumberland, played by a very shaggy David Morrissey (another RADA-trained award-winning stage/TV/film actor), wants Bolingbroke to replace Richard on the throne. The Duke of York (one of my favorite British actors, David Suchet, in a very non-Poirot look with all that lush facial hair and the rough-looking bulky robes), Bolingbroke’s and Richard’s uncle, and acting Governor of England while Richard is in Ireland, is against this treason but attempts neutrality. His son, Aumerle (Tom Hughes, another RADA actor who seems to be in everything PBS is showing these days — The Lady Vanishes, Taking Silk), however, continues to stay loyal to Richard.
Bolingbroke grows stronger as armies across the country pledge allegiance to him. He is a plain-speaking man of the people (something that comes across more clearly in the text than in the TV version), which they find easier to accept than a King who speaks in flowery, lofty verses and holds himself high above.
When Richard returns from Ireland, he learns of all this. Some of the best lines of the play also happen here as Richard is finally realizing that he wears, indeed, a hollow crown and that things are now beyond his control, particularly as two of his closest friends have been beheaded by Bolingbroke, who the entire nation now supports. I must say that Whishaw is at his best in these beach scenes — with the fey affectations, metaphoric verses, and that hopeless inability to make decisions with certainty.
Next, there are several scenes that show Bolingbroke eventually rising to the throne. One, in particular, when Bolingbroke and his men storm the castle, only to come upon Richard, fully-armored, standing in front of these great golden wings with a large sun-like orb behind him. It is the image of the Divine and intended to stop mortals in their tracks. Bolingbroke looks almost taken in by it all, but Northumberland presses him on. Then, a captured Richard is brought to Westminster, barefoot and in white robes, arms held out, to publicly surrender the throne, crown, scepter, etc., to Bolingbroke. Both Kinnear and Whishaw, with their complex and layered performances here, keep the viewer enthralled. As they hold the crown between them, we see Richard’s deeply-personal attachment to it and Bolingbroke’s almost-reluctant acceptance of it.
After Richard is locked in the tower, Aumerle is drawn into a plot against the newly-crowned Henry IV (as Bolingbroke is now known), by Richard’s loyalists. Aumerle’s father, York, discovers this and warns the King. However, Aumerle’s mother, wife of York (Lindsay Duncan giving it her best in three short scenes), pleads for her son. The new King, racked with guilt over what he has done to get his throne, forgives Aumerle and one other loyalist. But, the remaining are taken care of expediently.
Next, we have a bit of parting from the text. Instead of a nobleman, Exton, going to the Tower and killing Richard, we have Aumerle, mistaking that to be new King’s wish and wanting to get back into his good graces, doing the deed.
In the final scenes, Aumerle drags a wooden coffin to Westminster and presents the dead body of Richard to Henry IV. The martyred Richard is very Christ-like in his coffin repose. Henry, filled with guilt and despair, sits beside Richard on the floor and decides he must go to the Holy Land to confess and seek redemption.
It is hard to find negative things to write about this adaptation. Yes, the Biblical imagery was a bit much at times, but then, Shakespeare really lathered it on in the text. And, yes, the two women (Richard’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) were on screen for less than ten minutes altogether but, with a well-known historical tale about male rulers, this could hardly be avoided. Also, as the first in a series of four adaptations, it is highly likely that this episode was setting up the coming three and, as such, needed to focus on showing certain key events over others.
I will likely not review all four adaptations, so this was just to whet your appetites to go watch this first if you missed it last week. And, get ready for the wonderful Jeremy Irons coming up as Henry IV.
Let me leave you with some of the most memorable bits of Shakespeare’s luscious language in this highly under-rated play:
John of Gaunt, on his death-bed, just before Richard comes to see him:
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
On Gaunt’s death, Richard’s ill-fated decision to take all his lands and money:
The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;
His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.
So much for that. Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns,
Which live like venom where no venom else
But only they have privilege to live.
And for these great affairs do ask some charge,
Towards our assistance we do seize to us
The plate, corn, revenues and moveables,
Whereof our uncle Gaunt did stand possess’d.
Richard, when he realizes he is going to lose his throne:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Richard, just before he surrenders to Bolingbroke, Northumberland and their armies:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer’s walking staff
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
and my large kingdom for a little grave.
Richard, captured, dethroned, summoned to Westminster, to publicly hand over all his regal accoutrements:
O that I were a mockery king of snow
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke
To melt myself away in water drops!
Richard, in the Tower, before he is killed:
Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, despairing at Richard’s murder when Aumerle (Exton in the text) puts the dead body before him:
They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee: though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labour,
But neither my good word nor princely favour:
With Cain go wander through shades of night,
And never show thy head by day nor light.
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow:
Come, mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black incontinent:
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand:
March sadly after; grace my mournings here;
In weeping after this untimely bier.