If it’s possible to say about a work of Shakespeare, Richard II is perhaps the most underrated of the Bard’s plays in the most underrated genre of his work. I used to play the Shakespeare quiz on Sporcle all the time, and I always began by going straight down the histories because they’re so easy to remember in sequence, but not my favorites. The two classical masks of drama depict comedy and tragedy. They don’t leave room for Shakespeare’s history plays: part self-aggrandizing patriotism, part cultural preservation, part examination of male leadership. As directed by Rupert Goold, this first installment of The Hollow Crown isn’t quite on par with something like Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, a singularly triumphant Shakespeare production than transcends the links to the entire cycle. But this is a definitive visual portrait of Richard II, the single best widely available instance of a severely underrated history play with dramatic thematic ramifications for English identity.
Other than BBC’s exhaustive project to produce recorded versions of all 37 plays from 1978-1985—with miniscule budgets on alternately garish and threadbare sets—funded by American backers who wanted basic versions of every play to widen the reach of Shakespeare education, there is no major recorded version of Richard II. It’s not a glamour play like Romeo And Juliet or Hamlet, or even the widely regarded pinnacles of the histories like Richard III or Henry V. So executive producer Sam Mendes envisioned a grand, new version of The Henriad (for the purposes of these reviews I’ll define that as the four plays that make up The Hollow Crown): filmed on expansive beaches, in castle halls, on wide battlefields with armies of extras. The grandest period-accurate staging possible for a Cultural Olympiad linked to the 2012 London Olympic Games. The Hollow Crown is the perfect set of plays to undertake in that scenario: a linked, progressive story centered around mythic figures in the country’s history, instead of the Bard’s masterworks set outside England.
Richard II is a rarely produced history. The two largest North American theater festivals—OSF in Ashland, Oregon and the Stratford Festival in Canada—have averaged around one production every decade, significantly less than Henry V and Richard III, the two most common. It was the first play written in the second cycle. The trilogy that comprises Henry VI made Shakespeare’s name as a playwright early in his career, and Richard III established his first indelible character. But this play is not only a prequel to the first history tetralogy, but also a prologue to the relationship and rule of the Henrys Bolingbroke and Monmouth.
If you’ll allow for a ridiculous analogy, the other prequel that flashed into my mind when watching this production of Richard II was The Phantom Menace. Not because of quality—this is so much better than trade federation squabbling that ruins compelling mythology. But the pressure on Richard II is to set in motion the dominoes that fall across seven subsequent plays. It takes a very particular skill to imbue a living—and fictionally altered—account of historical events. My best friend fell asleep during a production of Henry IV, Part II in Ashland a few years ago, but I was riveted. These plays are the equivalent of an eight-play cycle focusing on the fathers of the American Revolution, something as wide in scope as August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
The biggest question in staging Richard II deals with the stature of the two male leads. Is this a preamble to the events of Henry V, where the focus should be on a young Bolingbroke, who will last through two more plays in contrast to his son, Prince Hal? Is it the initial act against the divine right of royal blood that superstitiously causes The War Of The Roses that takes place over Shakespeare’s entire history cycle through Richard III? (Let’s set Henry VIII aside as the outlier for now, since it’s the one play outside the paired tetralogies.) Some productions, like the 1974 version with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, featured the two lead actors alternating between Richard and Bolingbroke, presumably to demonstrate acting range but also to suggest that both men could wield petty idiocy and unwanted power. It’s a popular way to stage a play that puts two leads in sympathetic opposition—Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein adaptation featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller trading off roles of the Doctor and the Creature.
Goold’s version opts to frame Richard and Bolingbroke as polar opposites in word and deed. Ben Whishaw—Q in Skyfall and Freddie Lyon from The Hour—plays a nebbish and fey Richard, flitting about and making potentially cataclysmic decisions on a whim, seemingly disinterested in his wife and uncaring toward his most loyal subjects within the nobility. His initial decision—arguably the callous mistake that sets his own downfall in motion—is to halt a duel between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, instead choosing to exile both men for punitive amounts of time, seemingly at random, which is the first action that undercuts Richard’s authority.
In opposition to the monarch is Kinnear—Bill Tanner in the newest Bond films and a Laurence Olivier-winning stage actor—as Henry Bolingbroke, a man whose sense of pride and honor is shaken by the petty actions of the King he dearly loves. Perhaps the man who takes the news worst is John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart, too old to play Shakespeare leads other than Lear, but a dynamite supporting actor), Bolingbroke’s father in declining health. Richard’s second act of malfeasance is mocking Gaunt in his final moments, before instructing his men to ransack the estate, seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance to fund an unnecessary war against Irish rebels that takes Richard out of the country. It’s a gripping scene, as Goold chooses to shoot Gaunt’s monologue around one slow track in on Stewart’s face. Along with Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley, Stewart is the best of the old guard RSC actors who transitioned into film (I would place Derek Jacobi and Simon Russell Beale in a separate category, and we’ll get to the latter next week.) It’s also the moment where the pendulum swings furthest away from Richard, to the side of Bolingbroke, as Northumberland (David Morrissey from The Walking Dead and State Of Play) and other begin to discuss overthrowing the king as usurping the throne.
This is where the play digs into building difficult heroes and defying one-sided mythmaking. Richard II isn’t the triumphant story of a heroic king; it’s the beginning of internal conflict for generations within the English royal lineage, starting with usurpation. Richard rules with whatever decisions come into his head because of his belief in divine right. The scene in Act III on the beach in Wales, as Richard begins to realize all that he’s lost in going to Ireland, effectively ceding the crown to Bolingbroke, gives everything about this choice of characterization in a nutshell. Whishaw whines and screams, throwing a tantrum of disbelief that anyone would defy succession. And Goold inserts the capstone image: waves washing away Richard’s name in the sand, simple nature erasing his name from history.
The last half of the play sets Richard and Bolingbroke in direct conflict on stage even though the war doesn’t even take place. Henry wins, but all he wants is his inheritance back. When it becomes clear that his supporters want more, to insert Henry on the throne instead of his cousin, he’s stone-faced and reluctant, but he still goes along and takes power. Richard’s monologue in Westminster is the character’s last-gasp moment, summoned to the room barefoot, renouncing the throne in front of all he whom he wronged—wealthy nobleman who had to pay taxes, so frightful to imagine—and takes the only remaining vengeance he has left. As Richard says on the beach: “within the hollow crown/That rounds the mortal temples of a king/Keeps Death his court,” (III.ii) resigned to his fate after being deposed.
Henry’s guilt over the result of his return to England overshadows the rest of the play. As he will say in a later play, “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown.” Kinnear does an excellent job digging into Bolingbroke’s nerves over the situation, projecting a born leader, who inspires the men around him, but still feels tied to a misdeed, taking something that was not rightfully his. It’s a sentiment that overshadows the rest of his life and influences how he treats his son in subsequent plays, and Goold’s direction (along with Shakespeare’s text) demonstrates that.
And the subtle changes to the end of the play—another of Bolingbroke’s cousins delivering the coffin and taking proud credit for Richard’s murder as reparations for a treasonous plot, for instance—only improves the power of Kinnear’s remorse. Henry’s choice to pardon his younger cousin for conspiring with others—including a Bishop who screams out the blasphemy behind usurping the throne to the assembled nobles in Westminster in another powerful and portentous moment—comes directly from his own guilt over unintentionally seizing the throne. He wants to forgive Aumerle so that there may be a chance for his own forgiveness. But Aumerle, as corrupted by Exton, takes those words in a sinister way, and kills Richard in attempt to stem other treason plots against Henry. Kinnear conveys this betrayal as a terrible omen for his ruling tenure, and his personal sadness that the man he felt so devoted to could be wiped out in an instant. Richard II cuts off just as there is a physical symbol of wrongdoing for Henry, the lifeless corpse of the former king, and Shakespeare suggests that it haunts the man, the king, and the path of England for nearly the next 100 years.
All right, that’s enough praise. This is a fantastic version of a work that rarely gets produced, and as such has the opportunity to define the play to many viewers for years to come. But even as the definitive version of the play on film at the moment, there are some glaring flaws. The martyrdom imagery isn’t just thick. It’s oppressively omnipresent. A few minor suggestions of Richard’s belief in divine right to rule and his willingness to die for that line of thought would have sufficed, but instead the Jesus parallelism hits hard and fast once the usurpation plan has been stated. The callback to the painting Richard admires in the first act during his unfortunate and brutal assassination in prison doesn’t carry the same weight after the audience is numb from biblical imagery.
As per usual with the histories, the limited female characters get short shrift. Clémence Poésy as the Queen—a composite of Richard’s two wives, one of which was a child at the time of his death—has her part significantly reduced in the edited script, which already runs well over two hours. She gets one featured moment, shouting down a gardener (David Bradley, of Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter) for gossiping about news of Richard’s political demise, and that’s about it for female characters in every one of these plays. The other women in the Henriad don’t fare much better, wives of important men, prostitutes, and foreign brides for kings. This is a series obsessed with masculinity and the exchange of power between men, but let’s face it, it’s a medieval setting, so that has to be the case.
The only time where the budget shows any limitation is in depicting Bolingbroke as a rightful King. In the text, Richard speaks in such flowery metaphors, while Bolingbroke speaks plainly as the man of the people, the rightful King to watch over England. Visually, Goold failed to find a way to represent that division, since there are no crowd scenes to speak of, or many wide shots at all except to establish location. This production also skips over the parts of the text that closely examine the nature of Bolingbroke and Mowbrays squabble. It involves the sudden death of another man, and it’s strongly suggested that Bolingbroke was the culprit, which sours his supposedly rightful claim to the throne in order to better serve the people.
But in the face of all this segment of The Hollow Crown accomplishes—worthy opposing performances from Whishaw and Kinnear, another instantly memorable supporting turn from Stewart alongside several others, putting an oft-forgotten prologue to the histories on film in beautiful fashion—I’m willing to overlook the minor drawbacks of cutting down the original script and the overuse of a crucifix. Richard II makes the argument that this play sits right behind Henry V and Richard III as one of the best works Shakespeare wrote in this genre, and that it shouldn’t be lopped off to begin the Henriad with Henry IV, Part I nearly as often as it has been throughout the past century.
- He’s barely in the play as Thomas Mowbray, but James Purefoy looks so much better in a time closer to A Knight’s Tale instead of slumming it on The Following.
- Someone with deep pockets and a deeper interest in American theatre needs to fund recordings of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
- Isabella, Richard II’s second wife, remarried her cousin and died in childbirth at 19. Her younger sister Catherine? We’ll see her again when she shows up to marry Tom Hiddleston in Henry V.