Richard II is a play which I know pretty well. I have studied it and it was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw on stage. I have seen it four times on stage altogether over the years and loved Derek Jacobi in the previous BBC version. Richard himself is a great part and none of my four stage Richards, Ian Richardson, Michael Pennington, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes were a disappointment. I can still remember how wonderfully Ian Richardson played the deposition scene, and how moving Ralph Fiennes was in the great final speech at the end, a small lost figure enclosed in a tiny square prison of light inside the vastness of the old Gainsborough studios. It is poetry which resonates all the more for having seen how Richard’s own insensitivity, foolishness and egotism led to his downfall. It had to come, but it still breaks your heart to see it happen as you understand that he has now learned what he needed to know about himself as a man, rather than a king, but just too late. I can remember my English teacher talking about how people cried in the theatre when Gielgud played that scene. I bet they did. It is a play full of poetry, the only Shakespeare play written entirely in blank verse, which also responds to being given beauty in its setting. The Almeida production filled the end of the Gainsborough studios with a stark beauty made of weathered brick and real trees, and the RSC production with Jeremy Irons was like a beautifully lit gleaming book of hours set on stage. A really great production of this play is a very special thing to see.
The BBC have returned to it again in summer 2012 as part of their hollow crown season with a fine cast and Rupert Goold directing. I was very excited to see it, but also just a bit concerned. This is a play that I have strong feelings about and if they didn’t get it right I was not going to like seeing it let down. Some of the old BBC Shakespeares (not Richard II thankfully) were distinctly dodgy. On the whole I needn’t have worried. There is some fine acting on show and that will always come first for me. Ben Whishaw is every bit as good as his many fans would have hoped as Richard. He looks wonderful and has the right capricious, insular, self obsessed, other worldly quality to play a monarch who is so in thrall to the trappings of the divine role of King that he has lost sight of everything else, including himself. You can see his thoughts flicker across his face and while this is sometimes deeply distasteful it works beautifully at the end of the play when there is nowhere left for him to hide from himself, nobody else for him to define himself by, and he is forced to meet himself face to face. There is some great support from some of our most experienced actors. David Suchet is a strong and believable York- a part that can look foolish if it is played badly- Patrick Stewart gives one of Shakespeare’s finest speeches as good a reading as you could hope for as John Of Gaunt, and it was a complete joy to see an actor of David Bradley’s stature giving real life to the tiny part of the gardener. Casting of such depth is probably the main reason for putting Shakespeare on screen where it will never quite belong.
When it comes to the direction by Rupert Goold I do have some reservations. There are some nice touches, like the way Richard feeds his monkey during the scene at the opening where Mowbray and Bolingboke are being banished, and there are some beautifully shot interior cathedral and tent scenes which work really well, but I’m not sure it was wise to open up the play to include exterior scenes. The famous hollow crown speech is not improved by being spoken by a Richard who has been wading around on a beach looking for all the world like Lawrence of Arabia. The religious iconograpy where Richard rides on a white donkey and is finally shot repeatedly by crossbow like St Sebastian is justified but rather too heavy handed for my taste. The play stands or falls on its poetry and you really shouldn’t let anything else distract from that. A lesser Richard II than Ben Whishaw would have sunk without trace when asked to carry the weight of all that. I am thrilled to have had the chance to see that performance close up.
For all my doubts this film was basically a success for me and I am heartened by it and looking forward to my other loves, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V. I have a feeling that I shall like the Henry IV’s even better.