TV REVIEW: The Hollow Crown - Richard II

As you may have gathered, here at Assorted Buffery, we're more than a little enthusiastic about anything in the arts and we're even more enthusiastic about Shakespeare. So you can probably imagine our reaction when we discovered the BBC were adapting Shakespeare's second history tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V) under the title of The Hollow Crown. Now I can't speak for Jen, but I was positively giddy.

First, a confession; Richard II is one of the few Shakespeare plays that I have neither seen nor read so I'm taking a lot on faith that the BBC have adapted the text well for the screen and will only be assessing its merit as a television programme (I'll be much more on it when we get to the Henrys IV and V). The BBC has always excelled in its Shakespeare adaptations and this is no exception; lavish, dramatic and full of scene-stealing British actors. Kicking off the series, Richard II follows the exploits of the titular royal (Ben Whishaw) who seizes the lands and money of John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) after his death and provokes his exiled son, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) to rise up against him. Also starring David Suchet, Tom Hughes, Tom Goodman-Hill, James Purefoy, David Morrissey, Lindsey Duncan and Clémence Poésy, it's a veritable Who's Who of established and rising acting talent and follows the courtly intrigues that lead into a battle for the crown.

Ben Whishaw gives us a great central performance as King Richard, who Shakespeare sees as responsible for the War of the Roses. Never quite sure of where he's going next, Whishaw gives Richard a slightly terrifying edge; he refuses to listen to advice and changes his mind faster than the unpredictable British weather. He's not a particularly good king, more concerned with preening about in the latest swishy cape than with where the money's coming from and Whishaw's constant haughtiness captures this perfectly. His final monologue on his fall from grace is truly haunting, inspiring sympathy for a man broken by his inability to rule. Rory Kinnear gives a strong and more stable performance for Bolingbroke, the moral centre of the play who fights for England rather than himself, ably assisted by Suchet and Morrissey as his supporters. John of Gaunt is a relatively small role, a Shakespearian cameo if you will, but I defy anyone not to feel even a little patriotic when he gives his 'This England' speech, especially when delivered in Patrick Stewart's dulcet tones.

In terms of playing to its audience, the theme of patriotism throughout the episode ties in well with the current outburst of country loyalty we've been seeing this year thanks to the Jubilee and the Olympics (as I write this, I can hear the crowds in my flat as the Olympic Torch is passing through Leamington Spa). Various characters speak of the glory of England, but like the crown itself, it sounds hollow and false, because elsewhere we're being told what a dire state the country is in. The poor are exploited by the rich who just line their pockets and get richer - Richard's domain is an England that has fallen from grace, is rigid in its social categories of rich and poor and is on the brink of collapse. Shakespeare has long been known for providing a commentary for a wide of variety of social situations but I can't be alone in thinking that the England of Richard II bears a more than passing resemblance to our own.

Part of the problem with Richard II though is, for me at least, it does feel very much like a prequel, setting up the events for the considerably more action-packed Henry plays. You see the early seeds of the conflict with the Welsh, Bolingbroke as King and an England that stands on the brink of civil war but we move around too much to really focus on what's happening now, rather than in the future. Cutting from the coast, to Lancaster, to Wales all very quickly but Richard is at its strongest when you stay in one place for a considerable amount of time. A standout scene is one in which Richard holds a council on the beach where the sense of his own potential defeat permeates the atmosphere, contrasting greatly with the sun that beams down on the actors.

That being said, Richard II is still miles better than half of the stuff currently on television and The Hollow Crown is a fantastically ambitious project that I am eager to see to the end. Next week is Henry IV Part One, which is one of my favourite plays, and next Saturday night, I have most definitely got a date with oh-so-dashing Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston). Oh if only that were true.

- Becky

TV REVIEW: The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part One