Ben Whishaw (last seen in The Hours), Rory Kinnear (last seen in Black Mirror and Edwin Drood), Patrick Stewart, David Suchet (Poirot), David Morrissey (last seen in True Love), Clemence Poesy (last seen in Birdsong), Tom Hughes (who was in Cemetery Junction), Lindsay Duncan, and Lucian Msamati (who was Salladhor Saan in Game of Thrones). A venerable host of great and respected British TV actors. Sometimes the cast is not enough, but when the script is written by one William Shakespeare, then have no fear – this was always going to be a classic tv production and it did not fail.
Of course not all Shakespeare productions work, and one of the history plays – and one of the less performed ones – might not have worked, but it looked so good to watch that it did work. The BBC are doing a 4-part series. Following Richard II, they’re doing Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V. They go in order you see, as Henry IV is crowned in Richard II. Rory Kinnear – Henry Bolingbroke – has almost as big as part as Richard II – Ben Whishaw – but doesn’t have the good lines or solliloquys yet.
The play, or this production, seems to be a musing on the kingship and the divine right of kings. Richard II thinks he is divinely blessed – but of course he would think so; if you were born to be King of England you know that fate has dealt you a winning hand and it would be natural to think that God has blessed you to born into that specific family and lineage to take up such a role. So Richard II, who uses the royal ‘we’, compares himself to the deity many times. He’s a fey, theatrical, artistic, king who likes to stage his appearances before his court and even at his demise is shot with arrows by his the cousin Duke of Aumerle (Tom Hughes) to look like he was crucified and shot as Christ was. He even eats figs and has a monkey – but I don’t think Shakespeare wrote those into his stage directions.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Henry and the Duke of Norfolk (James Purefoy) have got into argument about honour. Henry thinks Norfolk is a traitor, though he strenuously denies it. So they come to the King. At first he tells them to fight to the death, but then decides to banish both. Norfolk is banished forever (and that’s the last we see of Purefoy in a very small role), while Henry gets only 6 years of exile. But 6 years is too much according to his father, Richard’s Uncle, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart). He rages against Richard on his death bed. And delivers some famous lines about this sceptred isle, this England.
After Gaunt’s death (and a nice turn by Stewart on how he is gaunt in name and nature), Richard seizes his uncle’s lands and raids his coffers so he can go and fight in Ireland. Never mind that he is stealing from Henry’s inheritance, because surely the King has a right to claim anything he should so wish. So Richard goes off to wage war, leaving his other uncle, the Duke of York (Suchet) and father of the Duke of Aumerle, in charge. While he is in Ireland, Henry returns to England to claim back his land. Some of the lords, led by David Morrissey, decide to help Henry in rebellion against the King, and soon the Duke of York agrees to support his other nephew too.
Richard returns to England to hear of the rebellion. The Welsh (depicted like barbarians) would have been on his side but got tired of waiting for his return from Ireland and have dispersed. The Duke of Aumerle, though, is still loyal with just a few other men. Henry, after beheading two of Richard’s closest Lords – blaming them for the flattery and for coming between Richard and his wife (Poesy), comes to Richard to give up his claim to the throne, as long as his exile is lifted and his lands returned. Richard agrees as he knows he has no other choice. But as his wife learns from a gardener, Henry has more power and the support of all the Lords while Richard’s position is far too weak. Richard concedes his own crown to Henry – after a humiliating display in front of the Commons – and is sent gleefully to the tower by Morrisey. His wife is banished back to France.
Henry is King. The Duke of Aumerle and various loyal churchmen are still unhappy though and plot to kill him. However, the Duke of York finds a letter of Aumerle’s about this plot and goes to the King to tell him of his son’s treachery. His wife (Lindsay Duncan) and son though come to the King too and plead for mercy, which Henry agrees to. And then Aumerle, believing that Henry wants Richard dead, goes and kills Richard in the tower. Henry is distraught, but that is his fate. To be continued!
Some great turns by Suchet and Whishaw. You know it is good acting when you feel sympathy for all the principal roles. It’s Shakespeare, so it’s hard to understand everything that is said, but he also repeats his points quite often, so it is easy to follow and the acting and direction helps. This particular programme was just under 2 and a 1/2 hours long – it didn’t feel long to watch as the plot was always moving, but I did feel tired at the end. The next one is a bit shorter, and future installments will have Tom Hiddlestone, Jeremy Irons and Simon Russell Beale.