This the first of four Shakespeare adaptations made by the BBC for part of their Hollow Crown season. The other three plays in the teratology are Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, and, Henry V. The plays are a collection of historical works by Shakespeare and follow King Richard II and his successors. Anyone familiar with the BBC’s 1970s adaptations of Shakespeare’s complete works will recall the oft parodied wobbly sets, rigid actors, and, a general brown-to-brown grey colour palate. This 21st century adaptation, thankfully, is nothing at all like that. It’s positively vibrant with colour, shot on some stunning locations, and beautifully performed.
The one single thing that stands head and shoulders above everything in this adaptation is Ben Whishaw’s performance as Richard II. It is like nothing I have witnessed in any performance of Shakespeare before. Whishaw has been a favourite actor of mine since his performance in Brideshead Revisited (as Sebastian Flyte) and also his turn in the criminally unappreciated TV show, Nathan Barley, so I might be a little partisan, but it is a remarkable performance. This may sound quite bizarre, but Whishaw seems to be channelling the spirit of Michael Jackson, there’s a feeble soft spoken charm to every word he utters. I really can’t describe it in any more of an accurate way. He even has a pet monkey! It’s really quite captivating to see such risks taken with the title role. The language of Richard II is markedly more wordy and metaphorical than other historical Shakespearian plays, yet Whishaw’s performance is so strong that one never feels lost in the protracted verses. After Whishaw role as
Michael II Richard II there continues a whole list of great performances including Patrick Stewart as a reserved and dignified John of Gaunt, and a thunderous David Morrissey as the Earl of Northumberland.
Goold, interestingly, plays with the idea of Richard II as an icon, he visually likens him to Jesus on frequent occasions. There is a similarity in the fate of the characters, but one never quite gets the idea of Whishaw’s Richard II as a religious figure. He talks of the power of God, and of England, and what it means to be king, yet I never saw Richard II as a martyr. He is too self-serving and angst ridden to be one.
This is a fantastic adaptation, Goold, without using worn out tricks like changing time periods, has updated Richard II to a contemporary and relevant piece. I don’t know exactly what the budget was, despite extensive googling on my part, but I’m positive it was huge. And it was well spent.
Marks out of ten – Nine