Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Hollow Take

Before watching part one of The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of Richard II aired on Saturday night, I was already prepared for some of the themes that this version of the play would be touching on. Without having watched it myself, I was given the gist of a conversation about the The Hollow Crown series which took place on The Review Show, broadcast the night before. Rather to my surprise, I was told that Mark Thomas was one of the guests on the show. I wouldn't have thought he'd have much patience with a programme like The Review Show (I know I don't - I had to skip through most of it when I had a look myself), but there he was. Now, I like Mark Thomas, but in this instance, I didn't necessarily agree with what I heard. As I understood it, he'd been arguing that Rupert Goold's “take” on the play was an unnecessary addition, and asking why directors couldn't just use what was already there in the play text. Fundamentally, I don't have any problem with having a “take” something (see my next review of the RSC's current Julius Caesar). In fact, I'd go so far as to say it can be crucial. If you're going to redo something as already overdone as a Shakespeare play, you've got to have a reason, right? You need to bring something to the story that will make it worth watching, make it stand out from countless alternative versions. So I still sat down on Saturday night to watch the film with a completely open mind. What I knew hadn't influenced my judgement. Having now watched both The Review Show and Richard II, however, I can say with some certainty that Mark Thomas was entirely right. On The Review Show, Kerry Shale argues that “you've got to have a take”. True enough, but it has to be something that adds to the play, enhances the story and makes it resonate in certain ways with the audience. Goold's dubious addition of a slightly bizarre homoerotic subtext to Richard II was, quite categorically, not that something.

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out here that reading Shakespeare, or indeed any text, with an eye for queer or alternative sexuality is not something that I'm against in general. Sometimes it can be fruitful. For an example, it's worked so well with Romeo and Juliet that most people these days seem to have forgotten that Shakespeare never actually wrote Mercutio as gay. This is fine (though it would be nice now and then to see a version which doesn't depict him as such, just for the sake of balance). With Richard II, though, this was an unhelpful addition which detracted from the main point of the play, transforming what was originally a well balanced, poignant and potentially still relevant piece of writing about power, recklessness and the problems innate in the political system, into the story of a one-sided struggle on the part of a slightly bewildered, wouldn't-be king and the martrydom of a weirdly masochistic reincarnation of, at once, Christ, St. Sebastian, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Let's be very clear: if there's one thing that Richard II is very definitely not about, it's self-sacrifice. On the contrary, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to show us just how self-serving, in their different ways, his principal characters are. It's already been said somewhere on Twitter that this version of the play is great apart from having missed out all the politics of the original, and I think that's a fair assessment. As I watched, I became increasingly annoyed at the almost wilful inattention to the subtleties of Shakespeare's political analysis. This film has moved, I feel, drastically away from its source text, a play which is about the deposition of immaturity, arrogance and naïve belief in the divine right to rule in favour of something smoother and more calculating, but nevertheless more competent – a kind of real politik, as Mark Thomas put it. Instead, we have a Henry who is fiercely loyal, if proud, who breaks his banishment only to reclaim the power and goods he has been robbed and cheated out of by the king. This is a Henry who is in no way crafty enough to attempt to take over the kingdom, and accordingly, his accession just “happens” by accident. When Henry finally reaches and makes his petition to the king, Richard, to his utter astonishment, not only grants his request, but also almost immediately proceeds to offer up the whole kingdom, entirely unprovoked and unpersuaded.

I still can't really tell if the director consciously intended to present Richard as quite so ridiculous and unsympathetic as he came across. My belief, based on all the saintly and Christ-like imagery attached to the character throughout, is that it probably was not. Nonetheless, as far as I was concerned, all that this imagery served to do was to suggest that Richard was suffering from a kind of Messiah complex, and I found it very unclear why this should be so. In all honesty, I think by this point I was just about as baffled as poor old Henry, who apparently hadn't a clue what had just happened or what on earth he was supposed to do next. In fairness to Goold's reading, Shakespeare undoubtedly presents Richard as highly delusional. For much of the play, Richard's silly, youthful little head is full of his supposed omnipotence, the almost magical power surrounding kings, rendering them uniquely infallible. More than anything else, in my opinion, the play is the story of Richard growing up, awakening to the fact that he is, after all, human, and this goes to the very essence of what his “hollow crown” line is all about. At the point at which he hands over the crown, he has learned the lesson of his own vulnerability. The crown (or his role as king) has no power to protect him when his kingdom turns against him. Not only has he failed to gather the man-power to fight against his rival's troops, he is also completely lacking in the intelligence, eloquence and quick wit needed to win people over with words. Talking his way out of a sticky situation is a skill that he has never learned, because he has never felt the need to, happily relying on his subjects' ingrained reverence for their “rightful” king with not an inkling of the precarious and dependent position this puts him in.

Though not necessarily a dislikeable character, Henry is Richard's polar opposite in this. Despite being a banished man, he manages to rally together support from a whole host of noblemen with talk of justice and the false promise that he has no intention of deposing the king. Of course then when he breaks this promise, no one really minds, because he has already succeeded in making everybody like him. The scene in which Henry's ruthless, calculating nature is typically made most clear is in the execution of Richard's remaining supporters, under the pretence that they have led the poor, trusting, unknowing king astray. Usually, it's quite clear that this is a ruse: Henry needs to make sure that no one will stand in the way of his path to the crown, so he invents an excuse to dispose of his opponents while still managing to appear like he has the king's best interests at heart. Unfortunately, the context of this adaptation lends an ulterior meaning to the accusations. The sometimes muted, sometimes rather heavy-handed homoerotic subtext seems to be stretched to the point of implying that these men are Richard's (not so) secret lovers. More problematic than this, however, is the fact that Goold clearly takes Harry at his own word. This means that even as he butchers innocent men, we still seem to be encouraged to sympathise with him.

The gay subtext crops up again uncomfortably at another important moment that really ought to be poignant, but in this case isn't. On his way to the Tower, Richard encounters his wife. Usually, this is Richard's chance to demonstrate a bit of humanity, and the audience's chance to really, truly feel for him. Though the rest of the play has shown him up as petulant, selfish and careless, at this point we clearly see his love for another person, and it is touching. It is a moment full of remorse and regret, a recognition of the wider repercussions of his own failure to be a good king. In The Hollow Crown, however, it is (perhaps aptly) a rather hollow and anti-climactic scene. Richard is cold and unfeeling with his wife, just as he has been cold and unfeeling throughout. He can't love her, apparently, because he doesn't swing that way.

I imagine the excuse for this “take” on the play is Richard's vanity, his love of fashion and excess and his melodramatic tendencies. Perhaps it also partly stems from his weakness and passivity in comparison with other more “manly”, soldierly men. I have two major problems with this. The first is simply the blatant disregard of historical context. Anyone who has any sense of the look and feel of the period will know that Shakespeare lived in the golden age of the peacock. Any man who could afford it was expected to dress richly and dramatically, to ornately and often gaudily adorn both his residence and his person. Attention to fashion and costly ornamentation were not unusual traits in men. This was so much the case that Queen Elizabeth I, anxious about the newly wealthy merchant classes becoming confused with real nobility, felt the need to draw up an incredibly detailed statute concerning what particular classes of people could and couldn't wear. Yes, that's right. People so badly wanted to dress up, often beyond their means, that it was made (at least in some cases) illegal. Though Richard II is set some time earlier, Richard's interests and expenditures would certainly not have been looked upon as unusual. My second problem, from a more modern point of view, is that such a reading is potentially offensive to actual homosexuals. You can't just deduce that, because a guy likes dressing up fancy and is generally passive rather than aggressive, he must be gay. I mean, come on. We're past that, aren't we? That's logic about as flawed and immature as Richard's own.

Quite apart from all that though, I actually really, really enjoyed the film. The acting was phenomenal. Never mind Shakespearean adaptations – there are few TV productions of anything that I've seen where every single actor involved does such a fantastic job. The one performance I would say I had some issues with was actually the one I least expected to find problematic. To be completely fair though, I don't really think it was the actor's fault. I usually find Ben Whishaw the most compelling thing about anything he's in (and that's really saying something when you've been in all-round fabulous, star-studded productions like The Hour), generally because he's doing the exact opposite of what he did in Richard II. What Whishaw does magnificently and almost, it seems, instinctively, is to powerfully convey a sense of interiority. When you watch him, you feel like there's a whole world of stuff going on inside his head that you don't know about. It's a skill that some actors never achieve in their whole lifetimes, let alone in relative youth, and it's always what really brings his characters to life. It makes them three-dimensional, intelligent, individual. Funnily enough, as soon as I heard that he was playing Richard II, I was thrilled: I couldn't imagine anyone more perfect for the role. But unfortunately, the camp, melodramatic, stagey style he adopted in The Hollow Crown was a pretty far cry from his usual performances, and the only reason for this that I could see was that something went badly wrong with the direction. Whishaw probably made the best of the interpretation of the character he had to work with, which wasn't a very good one. He still had some stand-out moments in the film, but overall, it was undeniable that, just like his character, he was utterly outstripped by Rory Kinnear, whose performance as Henry was dazzling from start to finish. Elsewhere, Patrick Stewart was, as usual, spectacular. More broadly, I couldn't pick out any serious faults with a single member of the cast.

I'd have to be fair to everyone involved: despite the director having, I think, completely missed the point of the story, I think this is a fantastic production and well worth a watch, if you haven't seen it already. The whole thing looked fantastic and, in Rupert Goold's defence, he did come up with some brilliantly innovative ways of livening up scenes with lots of standing around and talking – I'm thinking particularly of the handing over of the crown here. For all my problems with it, it's slick, beautiful and compelling, and certainly more than enough to make me excited about this weekend's instalment. Expect to hear more from me on that.

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