I must confess, I am not very familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays. Like most theatre-goers, I have seen countless productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, etc, but the history plays just aren’t that popular. I hope that Rupert Goold’s ‘The Hollow Crown’ adaptations will change this. So far, I have only managed to watch Richard II, but quite against my expectations I was blown away by it. From the opening scene, as an effete king is asked to arbitrate in a dispute, to the gruesome end, it’s completely gripping. I think there has been some criticism of Ben Whishaw’s gentle and androgynous Richard, but I thought he demonstrated just the right balance of belief in his divine right with a mildness and, towards the end, humility. The historical Richard II certainly believed in the God-given role of the monarch, which was the root of much of his trouble; Shakespeare’s Richard revels in it, as Goold’s production shows. Certainly Whishaw’s Richard became more likeable as a character as his situation worsened; in his madness at the end it was impossible not to sympathise. What I found particularly interesting in this film was the use of religious imagery. Whishaw certainly appears as a Christ-figure, as the picture shows, and the play suggests that he has been sacrificed in the cause of England. Moreover, the iconography seems to depict his Queen, played by Clemence Poesy, as a Virgin Mary, towards the end, in blue and white robes with an expression of suffering.
Perhaps the most significant imagery, however, is that of St Sebastian. Early in the film, Richard looks at a painting of the martyr with arrows in his skin, a typically gory religious image of the Renaissance period. At the end, Richard becomes this martyr, suffering a similar fate. This is all Goold’s work, it is not in Shakespeare’s play; like Shakespeare himself, whose version of history has become a kind of ‘truth’, Goold has added another layer to our understanding of the character of Richard II. It’s impressive, too, that despite the luxuriant visual imagery, Shakespeare’s language is not neglected. Richard II is a formally-structured play, and written entirely in verse, and the actors carry this off marvellously, to the extent that I found myself smiling, even in tense moments, at the amazing, rich language which we usually take for granted.
The play, which is as much about the formation of England as we know it, as about the king himself, is an appropriate addition to the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ of which it is a part. It contains the famous speech from Act II scene i, which is a paen to England and to patriotism, but which is usually quoted without its qualifying second part, which says ‘That England, that was wont to conquer others,/ Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.’
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.