Shakespeare Returns to Form in BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown

By James Le Grice

It’s not novel anymore to watch a man in a hoodie spout off soliloquies in Elizabethan
English. Ripping Shakespeare’s plays out of their original contexts and plonking them
into modern settings seems to have become the norm, and it’s getting rather tiresome
now. The Hollow Crown, BBC Two’s new film adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV Parts
1 and 2, and Henry V, is a refreshing departure from this trend. It has a heady medieval
atmosphere with fine period costumes, real castles, sword fighting, and not an iPod in
sight. Thank God for that.

The problem with the “mutton dressed as lamb” approach to Shakespeare is that its
blunt efforts to prove that the Bard’s plays are as equally relevant now as they were
four hundred years ago forgets why these plays are so timeless. Shakespeare had the
challenge of writing for an extremely mixed audience. He had to come up with something
that could entertain an inebriated crowd of South Londoners, who would otherwise be
watching bear baiting or cock-fighting, and could simultaneously be performed in a
palace for the monarch and England’s highest nobility.

Thus, his plays are multi-layered and full of realist characters and themes that people
from radically different worlds can each relate to in their own way. When Shakespeare is
performed in modern dress, you lose this effect. Instead, the audience is forced to see the
play only as it relates to the director.

Richard II, the first instalment of The Hollow Crown, is set in the 1390s as the author
intended, and resultantly can resonate with a 2012 audience in multiple ways. The story is
of Richard (Ben Whitshaw), a king who lives in a fantasy world surrounded by flatterers
and yes-men. His finances are spent, there is an uprising against his rule in Ireland, and
there are rumours of treasonous plots at home.

Richard banishes his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) to exile abroad for
inciting violence. While Henry is gone, his father John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart)
dies, and King Richard steals his inheritance to fund the war against the Irish rebels.
Henry learns of this, and returns to England while Richard is away to forcibly claim
his inherited lands. But he doesn’t stop there. At the urging of various nobles, Henry
Bolingbroke gathers an army to claim the throne as well.

Richard returns to find that he has all but lost his kingdom. Henry’s army swells day
by day, and many of the people Richard felt safe to trust have defected to Henry’s side.
Richard is eventually captured in a siege, and forced to hand over the crown to his cousin,
who becomes King Henry IV. Richard is jailed and later violently murdered.

Certainly there is much here for the history buff to like, but you don’t need to be an
expert on the Lancastrian usurpation and the century of civil wars it caused to enjoy
Richard II. We see the themes of this story constantly in the news today. The titular
character could be all manner of different people. When Richard II was first performed,

Queen Elizabeth thought it was about herself, and that got Shakespeare into a spot of
trouble.

Today you might see the play as an allegory of the Libyan revolution. There is something
very Gaddafi-esque about the way Ben Whitshaw plays the character, eccentric and
aloof. The scene in which King Richard lands on an English beach to have his fantasy
world destroyed by the sobering reality of his predicament calls to mind Gaddafi’s BBC
interview with Jeremy Bowen. Gaddafi’s assertions that there were no demonstrations
against him and that all his people loved him were destroyed as Bowen presented him
with the cold hard facts. Richard’s sense of betrayal by his trusted allies corresponds with
the feelings Gaddafi expressed in the telephone recordings released by Al Jazeera.

And the circumstances of Richard II and Gaddafi’s deaths also relate. Both were killed
in a very bloody very undignified way by over zealous revolutionaries, and their deaths
present the same problems to their successors. When the predecessor of a leader who
comes to power through revolution is murdered, it smears a permanent stain on the new
leader’s legitimacy.

King Richard II could likewise be various other modern figures. He could be Silvio
Berlusconi, Bob Diamond, Tony Blair, even Margaret Thatcher. That is the beauty of
keeping the play in its original context. The audience can use its imagination to make of
the play what they want.

This adaptation of Richard II is not without its flaws though. The high production value
and stunning visuals are both a blessing and a curse. Shakespeare wrote the play so that
it could be performed with a minimalist set and a small cast. As a result, the script is full
of expository dialogue to help the audience visualise what the set is unable to create.
With this adaptation’s location shots and supporting cast of extras, most of the expository
speeches just feel redundant.

The other flaw is in the casting. The four history plays of The Hollow Crown, sometimes
referred to as The Henriad, cover a roughly twenty year period and have overlapping
characters and story lines. Ideally, the same actors would reprise their roles in the next
instalments. Instead, Henry IV will be played by Jeremy Irons in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Aside from the fact that Jeremy Irons looks nothing like Rory Kinnear, there is the
problem that Henry IV Part 1 picks up the story only three years after the ending of
Richard II. How the 34 year old Rory Kinnear ages into the 64 year old Jeremy Irons in
this short space of time is a bit of a mystery. We can only infer that life for a usurper is
very stressful indeed.

Watch The Hollow Crown on BBC Two, Saturdays at 21.00 or on iPlayer. Richard II will
be available on iPlayer until 28 July.

2 Responses to Shakespeare Returns to Form in BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown

  1. Ruth E.A. Lansley says:

    It was sensational! Superb! I have never before been as much moved by the brilliant acting, and
    that at long last, it was worth watching TV. I am inspired! We have such brilliant actors and the
    makers of such outstanding performance and production is something to be so grateful beyond words. Thank you! Thank you!

  2. Em says:

    Completely agree that Shakespeare “updated” is tiresome. I’ve never really understood why people do that. But your reasoning for NOT doing it is spot on, I think.

    Re The Hollow Crown series: I’m a scientist philistine and for people like me with little to no knowledge of the series it’s baffling that Henry morphs into someone else in the next “episode”. It reminds me of a soap when an actor gets too old to play a part. But perhaps here Kinnear wouldn’t have given enough weight to the role (he certainly didn’t overshadow Wishaw in the first one)? I don’t know as I’ve only just got around to seeing the first one (and thoroughly enjoyed it)! But I’m looking forward to the next.

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