My Fourth of July was not spent imbibing American patriotism; there were no barbeques or fireworks, no Star Spangled Banner hanging from my window, all of which would have stood in stark contrast to what turned out to be a grey, rainy Yorkshire day. Rather, I experienced two ends of a spectrum of English life. First, I lay in bed for most of the Fourth, ill from a cheap takeaway curry I’d eaten the previous night. The meal, which had seemed tasty and fresh at the time and was additionally seasoned by the late hour and my dozy senses, had transformed during the small hours into what felt like a sizeable mammal that was bustling and gnawing within my innards. Sleep wouldn’t come except in small fits when consciousness finally gave in; nevertheless, the animal twisted like a corkscrew whenever anything near comfort approached. When dawn arrived, my mind demanded diversion.
So, with remote in hand and my head resting on some pillows whose covers were crinkled from my night of struggle, I perused the BBC iPlayer: after not too long a search I found the latest production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” starring Ben Whishaw.
I’ve always respected and admired the Bard: every time I see one his plays I find some gem of truth or sparkling turn of phrase which I carry with me, ever awaiting a moment for optimal deployment. I also think much of life could be improved if Shakespeare’s words were used more frequently. For example, I would relish it if BBC Parliament carried a Macbeth inspired sub-caption during Prime Minister’s Question Time whenever Cameron speaks: “It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. If words are mighty, and indeed they have the power to make or break everything from kings to lovers, then Shakespeare was a supremely powerful man. Yet, I am no expert; I wish I was. I am thus challenged by my ignorance to take up any convenient opportunity to experience his works even when I personally am not up to full strength.
I looked at the programme description both on iPlayer and online: “Richard II” was filmed as part of the new “Hollow Crown” series which will show Shakespeare’s plays in historical sequence starting with Richard II, then proceeding on to Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and finally arriving at Henry V.
Although “Richard II” is regarded as a classic, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Much of it is Tudor propaganda which basically suggests Richard II was a weak and ineffective King whose caprice led to his downfall and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke, a direct antecedent of Queen Elizabeth I. This portrait is partially true at best.
The real Richard was hardly weak: at the tender age of fourteen, he played a key role in ending the Peasants’ Revolt. After William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, killed the peasants’ leader Wat Tyler at Smithfields during some tense negotiations, Richard fearlessly rode his horse towards the rebel army. He then shouted “I am your captain, follow me!”: this phrase was taken by the rebels to mean the King had joined them in their fight against the hated aristocracy. Rather, the King meant that they were to do as he said. The latter interpretation won out.
The authentic Richard had other virtues. He was a something of a peacenik compared to his predecessors and a patron of the arts. Westminster Hall was rebuilt during his reign. This emphasis on quieter pursuits than those achieved on the field of battle plus his insistence on strict decorum and descriptions of the delicacy of his appearance led to Shakespeare’s strong suggestion that Richard was homosexual. Given how Richard apparently mourned for his late queen, this is more than likely false.
Nevertheless, if this “history” is not history, it at least can speak about greater themes and inspire us with well crafted verse. We are warmed up with a prelude that suggests we tell “sad stories about the death of kings” and it is said in such a way that it makes one shiver. This production of “Richard II” adds to the power of Shakespeare’s words with pristine tableaux: when we first see Ben Whishaw, he sits full of his own grandeur at the centre of Westminster Hall. He holds the sceptre and orb in a statuesque manner which marks him out from the assembled nobles. Despite his confident demeanour, one immediately doesn’t envy Whishaw’s task, as he has to be the main character in a cast which features Patrick Stewart and David Suchet. Nonetheless, he is the embodiment of Shakespeare’s Richard from the moment we cast eyes on him: finespun, averse to combat, vain, capricious, scheming, more prone to contemplation than action. He is also incompetent: he banishes potential rivals without realising the limits of his power to banish danger. He dallies with male favourites and his inclinations are hinted at by a scene in which he views an artist painting a model standing in for an afflicted Christ. He can turn from despair to exultation to despair again in quick succession, as a proven by powerful scene filmed on the coast of Wales. In his last moments, Richard shows humility, humanity and depth. At no point does Whishaw falter: it is quite likely he will be considered the definitive “Richard II” for some time to come.
This is not to say that Whishaw’s performance obliterates all the others: for example, Patrick Stewart was mesmerising as John of Gaunt, reciting his lines about “this other Eden, demi-paradise…this England” in such a way as to bring tears to the eyes. It was such a pure distillation of genuine patriotism that it made American Independence Day with all its pomp, rhetoric and decorative serviettes seem paltry and overcommercialised.
Others fare just as well: David Suchet, as the Duke of York, is clear, firm and precise. Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke is the obvious hero and as a result, perhaps is purposefully less interesting. Even when he dishes out a harsh sentence to two of Richard’s acolytes, namely their immediate beheading, his accompanying speech gives the audience an excuse not to think too badly of him. Indeed, the viewer naturally rallies to him; he seems loyal to a fault and only breaks with his oaths when Richard pushes him to it. Perhaps Shakespeare’s great talent, along with Kinnear’s, is to give depth to a character who seems so straightforward. After all, Bolingbroke’s efforts end up with Richard deposed and martyred and himself as King; how much, the audience is left to wonder, was artifice, and how much was supposed to be the true Bolingbroke? Or was it that ambition and opportunity are very powerful catalysts?
It’s rare that one can look at a television programme or play and think there wasn’t anything wrong with it: there’s generally something that can be fixed or improved. Most writers are afflicted with the curse of dissatisfaction: there’s no rest. Like a gnawing, twisting animal residing in one’s innards, a belief persists that any work can always be made better, the words can flow more easily, the characters can be made more interesting or express themselves more clearly. Not this time: the play is perfectly written, the characters are perfectly drawn, and in this production, the scenes are perfectly set and the actors were perfectly chosen. In other words, it’s not only outstanding, it’s immaculate.