Starting on Saturday and continuing for the next three weeks, BBC2 is showing a sequence of Shakespeare’s historical plays under the umbrella title of The Hollow Crown. Writer and theatre reviewer Jonathan Watson will be reviewing each film every Monday.
The last time the BBC spent this much money on the monarchy, it was a right royal you-know-what. During the jubilee, thousands braved the horrible weather and lined the Thames in soggy formation, as “so many greedy looks of young and old through casements darted their desiring eyes” to the Royal Flotilla. The more sensible among us stayed at home to watch it unfold on telly. After all, we’d been promised a perfect vantage point, expert analysis and essential viewing without getting soaked or crushed by a stranger in a Union Jack tuxedo.
What we didn’t bargain for, however, was Fearne Cotton and Jake Humphreys presenting the jubilations like they were a segment on Saturday morning children’s TV. At one point, as Prince Philip jigged about on the top deck of the Spirit of Chartwell, I thought Dave Benson Phillips might show up and gunge the right royal husband, before a panning shot back to Cotton who, as she gave two thumbs up, would shout ‘wicked!’ into the camera.
Well, maybe not, but you get the idea.
And, after a flood of more than 5,000 complaints including Stephen Fry calling it “mind-numbingly tedious” on Twitter, the pressure was on the Beeb not to make the same mistakes with The Hollow Crown, its major contribution to the Cultural Olympiad. Thankfully, this time around there’s no such cock up, despite the fact the Bard and TV don’t always make for successful bedfellows. In fact, Rupert Goold’s film — the first of four spanning Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V — is a camp, luxurious triumph.
It’s a knotty, elaborate play, and one that is far less suited for the small screen than, say, the beer chugging wickedness of Falstaff or the corpse count we’ve got to look forward to from Henry V. But it is gripping nonetheless. Goold takes Shakespeare’s barrage of long speeches devoid of comic relief, about divine right, loyalty, betrayal and the course (however rocky) of kings, and illuminates them with fantastic cinematography, an impressive, in-season range of pastel clothing and plenty of extremely extreme close ups, none better than five minutes cheek-to-cheek with Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt.
The acting isn’t bad either. As Richard, Ben Whishaw strikes a nutty balance between an androgynous manchild, forced as he was to the throne at just 10 years old, and a proto-Jim Morrison, flicking his hair and pouting before playing with his monkey. His caprice, the “no deeper wrinkles yet” narcissism, is met nicely by a fulsome Rory Kinnear as Bollingbroke, his eventual successor, who, whether furious about his wronged honour or scratching his ever growing, superior beard, was effective enough, considering he didn’t really have that much to say.
David Suchet probably steals the show as the Duke of York, anchoring the plot with ferocious attention to detail. I’d like to say his performance, not least his agonising report of Richard’s eventual imprisonment, leaves him heads above the rest. But, considering it doesn’t roll across the floor of Bollingbroke’s court at the end of the play, that would probably be in bad taste. And a final note to the powers that be at the Corporation: yours are probably safe now, too.
Photo: Ben Whishaw as Richard II. © Neal Street Productions. Photographer: Nick Briggs
- The Hollow Crown: Richard II is available on iPlayer until Saturday, July 28.