"For a long time, I was interested in Richard II as a Michael Jackson figure," said Rupert Goold in Shakespeare Uncovered, the Derek Jacobi programme that immediately followed his production of Richard II.
Both were sexually ambiguous, he explained, both playful, capricious divas. And both had a monkey. The phrasing of Goold's remark suggested that he'd eventually moved on from that approach but I'm glad to say the monkey made the final cut and Ben Wishaw's initial appearance as the king – soft-voiced, coquettish and demanding – made it look as if their early conversations about the character had left some kind of residue behind. Goold, meanwhile, had moved on to Saint Sebastian: in an early scene he had Richard look on as Bushy, a proto pre-Raphaelite, put the finishing touches to a painting of the saint. And he finished with Richard himself unwillingly re-enacting that martyrdom as he's murdered with a crossbow.
This first film in the The Hollow Crown – the BBC's new adaptation of Shakespeare's history plays – was an oddly and specifically mixed affair, thrillingly intense and compelling when indoors and always on the edge of provoking a giggle when outside. The problem is addressed by the Chorus in Henry V. It's simply easier to obey his instruction ("Into a thousand parts divide one man/ And make imaginary puissance") when you're looking at a stage than when you're looking at a real landscape. Six actors can summon an army if the ground they stand on is confined but when they're marooned in open country there's a real danger they'll just look silly, and in opening up the play Goold's direction fairly consistently diminished it. Richard made his defiant speech to Bolingbroke in front of two giant cardboard angels, a cluster of chain-mailed knights looking up at him in a way that unhelpfully reminded you of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Bolingbroke appeared to go into exile in a municipal rowing boat and Richard to wade back from Ireland with only the Bishop of Carlisle as retinue.
Indoors, though, what a thing it was. Wishaw was at the heart of it, naturally, bringing to Richard's slow realisation of his mere mortality a heartbreaking confusion. And here Goold's instincts seemed utterly sure-footed, quietly alerting us to the play's underlying themes (its recurring attention to the gulf that exists between being enthroned and being seated on the ground, for instance) while also bringing an absolutely gripping intimacy to the great set pieces in the play. Patrick Stewart was excellent as John of Gaunt, quivering with patriotic distress as he confronted the King in the "sceptred isle" speech. And Rory Kinnear beautifully captured the necessary double-think of the traitor, who must himself instantly become a scourge of traitors and indignantly defend a divinely appointed sovereignty that he has just exposed as man-made. When the crown passed between them, after Richard's brilliant moment of uncertainty ("Ay, no; no, ay"), there wasn't a shred of the cultural deference that can sometimes afflict Shakespeare on television. It was all hair-raising immediacy, a game of thrones with a script that has already lasted 400 years.
You'd need a fairly capacious appetite for Shakespeare to have flowed seamlessly on into Shakespeare Uncovered, in which Derek Jacobi offered a kind of preface to the play we'd just seen. But those who did watch it would have found a serviceable exploration of the play's themes, the challenge of performing it and its continuing resonance. Wishaw testified to the telling synchronicity that saw his rehearsal of Richard's threat to bedew the grass with "faithful English blood" coincide with Saif al-Islam's threat to do the same to insurrectionary Libyans. Unfortunately, Jacobi then climbed on to his own personal hobby-horse, pushing the case that the Earl of Oxford was the real author of "Shakespeare's" plays, and I lost interest almost immediately. It's the words that matter, not the name on the title page.
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