Great Performances: The Hollow Crown – Richard II

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?

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3 Responses to Great Performances: The Hollow Crown – Richard II

  1. Ben Wishaw’s performance was excellent but overall the balance of focus was distorted. The energy dropped when Richard was off screen and Rory Kinnear’s performance was to understated. The result was a production which centered on the religious imagery as opposed to the issues of divine right and usurpation of the throne. I agree that by making him a Christ like martyr as opposed to a victim the play lost some of it’s bite. There needs to be some doubt in our minds about Bolingbroke’s decisions but in this play we have a king who is so fey and manipulative you are only surprised it has not happened earlier and wonder more at the protagonists indecision than his morality. So as a portrait of a weak and childish king being over thrown it worked but as victim and a martyr for me failed. I was left with the feeling that it was only in his own mind that he was a martyr and that was just another argument for him not to reign as king. I also found the production values very stylised and theatrical as opposed to an adapted TV drama.
    The rest of the cast were excellent but the direction and Wishaw’s very dramatic performance overshadowed the rest of the cast. So although on initially watching it I was enthralled by it on second and third viewing it started to interfere with my overall enjoyment. Am not criticising His performance just the overall direction.

    • You make a good point that Richard was definitely the focus of this production which left it a little off-balance. Also your point about the production values is a good one in that they were “very stylised” — my husband, walking through, said “This looks like Monty Python.” Which was kind of the point, for Richard, but not a good take-away for someone who isn’t a big Shakespeare fan to begin with. You say that “it was only in his [Richard’s] mind that he was a martyr” and that’s something for me to reflect upon as well, but for me, the way the director portrayed it, it seemed like that was the only interpretation that could be taken from this play: that Richard IS a martyr, not that he THINKS he is one. Do you see that as coming across because of the heavy-handedness of the imagery? I also see your point that by making Richard such an awful king, they justified Bolingbroke’s actions more than they should have, because that mutes Bolingbroke’s conflict and makes him seem weak for questioning what he is doing, whereas that is supposed to be one of the central questions of the play. Thank you for finding this blog and for commenting.

  2. Pingback: Great Performances: The Hollow Crown – The Rest of the Henriad | A Writer's Notepad

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