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Telling Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. The 1978 BBC Richard II.

June 15, 2017


The costumes are gorgeous.  Medieval finery has rarely looked so fine.  Oh, and the horses are real.  David Giles directs a version of the play that never quite has the confidence to push the pageantry to the point of sinister self parody.  But still, it dazzles.

John Gielgud (no less) is John of Gaunt and he pulls of the astonishing feat of delivering the “sceptred isle” speech without it sounding like it’s been plucked from an anthology.  But he achieves this, not by making the speech more colloquial but rather by intoning every single line that’s set down for him – making everything sound like it’s anthologisable.  Richard II, incidentally, is written entirely in verse – which helps.

The wonderful Charles Gray plays Gaunt’s brother, the Duke of York.   There’s a strange bit of extended gallows humour towards the end of the play where the Duke and Duchess hold dissenting views as to whether or not their son should be executed for treason against the freshly crowned Bolinbroke.  Gray is a superb blusterer.

The fascinating thing about Bolinbroke, is that the play never actually gives us the exact point where he stops campaigning for the restoration of his Ducal title and becomes a usurper instead.   There is no speech where he announces this intent, no soliloquy that deals with the decision.  The usurpation is an event which is assumed to have been decided upon rather than an event that lives in a particular moment of decision.

As played here by Jon Finch, Bolinbroke is compelling and tragic in the most elusive of ways.  It’s notable that there’s no scene where Bolinbroke lives to triumph in his successful enthronement.  No sooner does he achieve supreme power, than the guilt sets in.  Nor do we even get to see such moment, because Bolinbroke is never given the kind of dramatic centrality that seems to entitle him to any moment of regret.  All the regret is belated.  Indeed Bolinbroke never lives in the moment – never lives in a moment that might give him any real agency.  Perhaps that’s his extended tragedy.

And Jacobi’s Richard.  Ah, Richard.  He (and the play) really is a game of two halves.  He is only truly regal after he’s been deposed.  At the beginning of the play, he is the most tiresome of absolute rulers, with a mannered and tremulous voice whose stage management of the non trial by combat is deliberately long-winded and tiresome.

Jacobi’s “hollow crown” speech is profoundly moving.  Only when completely stripped of practical authority, can he sound authoritative.   His final long Pomfret speech is separated into sections and filmed as though this interior monologue takes place over the course of weeks or months.  Not sure how I feel about that.

Shakespeare never mentions The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) in Richard II, but historically, it seems likely that Richard’s head was turned by it.  A teenage boy managed to quell a proletarian uprising with his sheer presence.   In some ways, Richard was born 300 years earlier.  He had fantasies of early modern absolute rule worthy of Louis XIV at a historical moment when  such fantasies could not be logistically realised.  The fourteenth-century he inhabited demanded that rulers keep faith with local magnates and ensure a national as well as international sense of “balance”.  Divine right of kings simply didn’t have the apparatus to support it.

Giles production hints something else associated with Richard’s downfall.

There’s a clear suggestion in the staging of Act One, Scene iv in a sort of bath-house sauna setting, that Richard’s relationship with his favorites is closer than that of a ruling monarch with his preferred politic advisers.   This scene then reinforces the accusation later made against young Bushy and Green by Bolinbroke prior to their peremptory death sentence.

You have misled a prince, a royal king,
A happy gentleman in blood and lineaments,
By you unhappied and disfigured clean:
You have in manner with your sinful hours
Made a divorce betwixt his queen and him,
Broke the possession of a royal bed
And stain’d the beauty of a fair queen’s cheeks
With tears drawn from her eyes by your foul wrongs.

The production can, therefore, either be read as a homophobic narrative which suggests the unfitness of a gay man to exercise executive authority, or as an angry protest against a world in which homophobia unjustly dispossesses a rightful ruler.

Richard II is all about dispossession and not just Richard’s.  No sooner has Gaunt died that Richard takes all his stuff.  And he takes all of Gaunt’s stuff just so that he can go to Ireland and take all of their stuff.  Richard is deposed because his sense of royal prerogative means that nobody’s stuff is safe.

Indeed, this play demonstrates that there’s no secure exercise of power without reciprocity.  No entitlement exists in isolation and one cannot assert one’s own rights without acknowledging those of others.

Shakespeare seems no particular fan of the Divine Right of Kings.  But he’s equally frightened of the anarchy that follows the logic of “might is right”.  If you can’t trust meritocracy and you can’t trust primogeniture, then what can you trust?  Shakespeare is too early for written constitutions and the sovereignty of the people.  All he really trusts is successful theatre.

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the probable anniversary of the murder of Richard II

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