The Hollow Crown 1: Richard II

I have been in a state of nerd DEFCON 2 all year, I swear. 2012 is starting to feel like the apology for the (other than Thor) rather thin offerings of things that to watch in 2011. But I haven’t just been vibrating with barely controlled glee over the various extravaganzas of shit blowing up and bad things getting punched in the throat (slow motion optional). I’ve been counting the days until the start of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, which is their presentation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays: Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and part 2, and Henry V. The name “The Hollow Crown” actually comes from a line in Richard II (act 3 scene 2):

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits…
Nice pick for three plays about the life and death of kings.

I love Shakespeare. I have since my mother had me watch Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. I regularly go for plays in Boulder’s summer Shakespeare festival, though unfortunately none for me this year since I’m in Houston. But hey, the BBC is helping me out with this one.

I actually took Shakespeare for non-majors to get my upper division literature credit for my BA. We ended up reading Richard II and both parts of Henry IV, though to my eternal sadness didn’t continue on to Henry V, which is still my favorite out of all the plays. That class is also the source of one of the worst sentences I’ve ever written in my life (in a paper about Macbeth) but I digress. We did get to watch a video of the production of Richard II that Derek Jacobi starred in, and I liked it well enough.

Full disclosure: I probably would have just been at nerd DEFCON 3, if it weren’t for the fact that Tom Hiddleston is playing Prince Hal/Henry V in the next plays. Favorite actor in favorite play ever? Gosh BBC, I would have just been happy with a box of chocolates and a stilted love letter, you didn’t have to go to all this trouble, but THANKS.

I will admit that of the four plays listed, Richard II is probably my least favorite. I’m not really wowed by the fact that it’s written in full verse, since I feel like the rhyming gets a little tedious or strained at times. I feel like it’s got some structural weaknesses in the plot – for example, I’ve been trying for years to actually give a crap one way or the other when Richard’s sycophants get put to death, but it’s pretty hard to do so when they don’t actually do anything as far as we can tell. We only hear about their misdeeds as a quick litany right before the head chopping happens. (I’m thinking this might have been less of an issue for audiences who were historically closer to the events being described, and also likely less picky.)

There’s also the fact that it ends up feeling very uneven; Richard is basically deposed at the end of Act 3, and it takes two more acts (which feel a bit drawn out) of him emoting before the thing is really done. I watched the #TheHollowCrown twitter tag the entire time the play was going, and saw quite a few people who were unacquainted with the play feeling very confused that Richard was deposed with something like another 40 minutes to go, because that really does feel like the end right there. A lot of action happens offstage that makes it much less satisfying than what we get out of Henry IV and Henry V. And so on.

Which is not to say that I dislike the play. Obviously, I was still utterly geeked to sit down and watch it via streaming. I’m just setting what I feel are flaws of the play out because I went in expecting those flaws to be in evidence. They’re structural to the play and can’t really be escaped.

So with that in mind, I thought the production was excellent, and I enjoyed it even more than I expected to.

Costumes and sets were just fine for my untrained eye; to me it looked better than a lot of BBC shows I’ve seen in the past thanks to the magic of PBS.

Really what blew me away was the casting. There wasn’t a single actor in there that I’d even begin to complain about. There were actually several non-white actors cast, which I thought was excellent. Lucian Msamati was the Bishop of Carlisle, and I thought he did great. Someone actually complained on twitter about it, which gave me some serious rageface1.

Ben Whishaw did an absolutely amazing job as Richard, handling all of his lightning fast swings between manic hope and rage and utter despair deftly. On one hand he made me want to punch Richard in the throat for being such a self-absorbed, petty tyrant, and on the other he still managed to make Richard a sympathetic character at the end, because you really could feel his complete loss of all hope. There was some commentary on twitter that he was getting a rather effeminate treatment; maybe a little, but that seems pretty in keeping with the play, I think, particularly since it makes Henry look like more of a badass.

David Suchet made an amazing Duke of York. I loved him to pieces in every scene he was in. He had all the internal conflict of choosing between Richard (the rightful but total crap king) and Henry (the usurper but much better king) and it came through very powerfully.

And of course, Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt just stole it completely. Which I guess is what you’d expect from Patrick Stewart. John of Gaunt’s big speech in Act 2 scene 1 just gave me chills.

The only thing for the production I really didn’t care for was I felt like the divine imagery got hammered on a little too much. Yes, I get it. Richard being deposed was a massive blow against the idea of the divine right of kings. And he certainly felt himself persecuted. But somewhere between him laying out on the floor of the throne room in his white robe and being tucked in a coffin with some very well-placed wounds, it got to be just a bit too much for my taste. At the point the coffin was open and we got a full view of mostly naked Richard with his knees bent in a rather familiar pose, I turned to Mike and said, “He just went the full Jesus. Never go the full Jesus.” So obviously, this did not have the desired effect on me as a viewer if my reaction was sarcastic paraphrasing of Kirk Lazarus.

Anyway, if you like Shakespeare, definitely give this one a whirl. If you want to try Shakespeare out, it’s not a bad place to start, though the verse can be a little rough if you’re not used to it. The actors are all excellent, though, so you can get a good idea of what’s going on even if you have a hard time following some of the dialog – though I’d recommend perhaps reading a summary of the play first just in case since that does help.

What this has really done is given me a massive case of anticipatory squee for the next three installments. If they managed to impress me this much with a play I’m pretty lukewarm toward, I may just explode in a shower of sugary sparkles of happiness by the time we get to the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V.

1 – Obviously in his day, everything was about white dudes, and all the actors were white dudes, because duh. I’m really happy that non-white actors are finally scoring parts, and within the context of the plays it’s being treated as a complete non-issue. I just keep wondering when women are finally going to get that chance in mainstream productions. There are obviously some places where that wouldn’t work, but for example in Richard II it doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of a difference if Bagot is played by a man or a woman. This is just a thing I think about on occasion, because if this were fantasy mirror world where I could actually magically be an actress, I would still never get to play any of the parts Shakespeare wrote that I love best, because back in his day women didn’t get to do a whole hell of a lot. (Including acting, so hey at least we’ve gotten that far!) So it just makes me sad. Not that it stops me from reading scenes to my cats when no one is around and I feel like making dramatic pronouncements.

The Hollow Crown blogging:
Richard II
Henry IV part 1
Henry IV part 2
Henry V

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