Review: The Hollow Crown - Richard II
'The Hollow Crown' is the BBC's new summer series screening four of The Bard's History plays - Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V - running throughout July
This generously financed new series for the BBC was impressive not only for its lavish costumes and wide-panning landscape shots, but in the simple fact that it engaged my eighteen year old sister enough for her to put aside TheSims3 for the first time in days.
Ben Wishaw, who may be known to some readers as the protagonist of The Hour (hailed as 'The British Answer to Mad Men'), played a completely different character to that of Freddie Lyon. In this adaptation, he shone as the spoilt, brattish Richard II. He at first seemed a bit young to be playing Shakespeare's lead role, but he rose to the challenge commendably. Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and David Suchet as the Duke of York added a sense of theatrical gravity to the proceedings. Looking suitably weather beaten and gaunt (sorry), the two veterans emanated seriousness throughout, despite wearing some very silly hats.
Although charged with the care of hairstyles Princess Leia would be proud of, Clemence Poesy played Queen Isabella aloof and cool throughout. Shakespeare's erudite Duchess of York was in safe hands with Lindsay White, who complemented Suchet perfectly. The opening scenes - shot inside remaining examples from the period in which it is set - were softly lit, and symmetrical, obviously pointing at the power Richard gains from his position as king. Indeed, throughout the production, the lighting of different scenes - on grey beaches, in darkened cloisters, or sunlit throne rooms - deserves praise. Evidently aided by the acoustics of the set and the well practised tongues of some of Britain best known actors, Shakespeare's canonical script echoed impressively.
Some may have claimed that certain aspects of the production were reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Admittedly, there were occasions when of the great army of Wales was represented by twelve men covered in orange Play-Doh and carrying pointy sticks, but these anomalies paled to insignificance compared to the sweeping, epic shots of "the sceptred isle".
The soundtrack did well to echo the changing levels of suspense throughout the play - plenty of deep bass and tense strings to accompany Richard's changing moral and political standings. Wishaw's final scene, shot in near total darkness in a cave before his death, was engrossing and powerful; and a huge contrast to the earlier scenes. Finally, with his body brought before the new King, the dead Richard is framed in an almost biblical scene, clothed only in a loin cloth.
Rupert Goold’s writing and direction deserves congratulation. Transferring Shakespeare from stage to screen is not easy even with well-known plays such as Romeo and Juliet. To attempt it with some of the – shall we say, drier – plays is commendable indeed. It will interesting to see where he takes the rest of the plays in the series, and whether they will engross my sister another three times.
The Hollow Crown series continues on Saturday at 9pm on BBC2 with Jeremy Irons starring in Henry IV, Part 1.