I am a week behind on “The Hollow Crown” so don’t tell me what happened in “Henry IV, Part I” this week. (I’m kidding. I totally know.)
I’m wondering what other people thought of “Richard II,” the first installment of the series. I confess, in many ways, I enjoyed the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production I saw this summer more.
The acting in the Great Performances production was stellar. All of these actors are top names at the peak of their powers, and there were really no missteps. Ben Whishaw did a wonderful job as a spoiled, megalomaniacal, effete King Richard, and Rory Kinnear provided a powerful contrast as the active, take-charge but morally conflicted Bolingbroke. One of the best things about watching Shakespeare on film is that the audience can see the tiniest of flickers — of emotion, of eye contact — that add so much to a scene but would be lost to distance in a theater, and there were several of these rich moments in the production.
Where I had trouble was with the director. The heavy-handedness of the religious imagery, and the conversion of Richard into a Christ-figure, was too much for me and unnecessary to the play. In what way was Richard an innocent sacrifice? There was blame aplenty to be laid at his door which he fully acknowledges.
Turning Richard’s deposition and banishment to Pontefract into a parallel to Jesus’s trial and trip to his execution diminishes and distracts from what is actually occurring in the play. It makes the deposition scene overwrought and strange, with the crown hanging mysteriously in midair at one point. When Richard’s wife, dressed in blue, meets Richard as he is being dragged, barefoot and stumbling, through muddy passages by armed guards, the director is clearly drawing a parallel to Jesus’s meeting with his mother Mary, who is traditionally dressed in blue, on the road to his execution. However, that image jars with the reality of what is happening in the scene, which is the poignant farewell of a husband and wife, not a mother and son. Thus, a scene which ought to be sweet and tender becomes, frankly, a little creepy. In the final moment, the camera pans from Richard’s dead body, posed in a similar manner to the crucified Christ, up to an actual carving of Christ on the cross, hammering home the parallel in case we were too dense to get the point. Really, how could we have missed it?
There are enough reasons within the play itself to support the proposition that what Bolingbroke and his supporters are doing is wrong without reaching out for the idea that Richard is a Christ-figure. The constant pushing of that agenda by the director compromised the emotional power of the latter half of the play and diminished Richard’s own personal journey. If Richard is a martyr, what is he a martyr to? The answer is not clear from context. Yes, his fall is tragic but he’s not a martyr simply because he dies pitiably. Richard is a victim, surely, but that alone does not make him a martyr. He does not die willingly for a cause; he has given up on living long before his life is taken from him: there is a huge difference.
One of the keys to making this play work is that Richard must be human: flawed, difficult, unlikeable at times, but always human. Without careful attention to this, the production runs the risk of the audience turning against him and ceasing to care. If a production loses that audience connection with the main character — this play is entitled “Richard II” after all, not “How Harry Bolingbroke Became King” – it has failed. Ben Whishaw didn’t lose me because he was always fascinating to watch. The director lost me; in fact, he pushed me away, because he forgot that Richard had to remain a person, not a symbol, for me to care about him.
What did you think?