The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection production of Richard II is available:
– For streaming from Ambrose Digital ($25 / ~£16)
– As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for £15.98 (£5.01 used) /
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.
Our Bottom Line:
Focus on Jacobi’s performance and you will realise that this fine and ‘well-graced’ actor does not disappoint. If it is deliberately mannered to begin with, then that is in character with – we are told – this most capricious and wilful of kings. Yes, you see an historical chronicle played out but it is more exciting, more ruthless, than some static ceremonial and the upholstered costuming might suggest.
Our Review (***)
If you should ever question the happy, happy, wall to wall, news coverage of a royal birth, remember Shakespeare’s Richard II where ‘fair sequence and succession’ is royally messed with. HRH Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, born on 2nd May 2015, is fourth in line to the throne and in the stable order of things these days is very likely to stay there or thereabouts. Richard, last of the Plantagenets, born 6th January 1367, was King of England for 22 years but then he was usurped by Tudors and got murdered. Shakespeare’s play is all about the last two to three years when it all went horribly wrong. He wrote it around 1595, eight years before Elizabeth I dies with no child of her own to pass the crown on to.
The First Folio lists The Life and Death of King Richard II as a ‘historie’ which is a bit prosaic for a play written entirely in (blank) verse and packed with famous extended metaphors. The Quarto of 1597 bills it as a ‘tragedie’ which is nearer the mark, especially when you cast Derek Jacobi as the self-destructive king of this ‘scepter’d isle’ and back him up with the great John Gielgud as his uncle, John, 1st Duke of Lancaster. In 1978 Jacobi was 40 and Gielgud 74. The actual age difference between Richard of Bordeaux and John of Gaunt (FYI, that’s Ghent in today’s Belgium) was twenty-seven years; so, if you like verisimilitude with your television drama, we have a good start.
Not so good are spear carriers, costumes and studio sets that have ‘Period’ or ‘Novel Idea’ stamped all over them. Castle walls look flat packed and are unimpressive on TV. Maybe, just maybe, they’d open out on today’s large screens. The King’s enclosure at the jousting lists in the third scene looks so fake that you long for the empty stage of Globe theatre productions then and now. The dangling (?plastic) apricots of the garden scene get in the way. Interior scenes are better and – close-up – you can believe that Richard is imprisoned within the ‘flinty ribs of this hard world’. As king he looks sumptuous in cream and gold thread and it is easy to accept that he’s bankrupting the exchequer on himself and his favourites but there are simply too many crushed velvet hats with fur trims. There’s lots of shiny, light weight armour on show and what with the wavy long hair of the late 1970s the whole effect is too noticeable, too coiffed and too embroidered. I defy you, further, to take your eyes off the queen’s headdress.
Best then to listen to voice and verse and story and let the background(s) fade. Magnificent , dying, Gaunt (Gielgud) tells how it is and will be – England is spent, ruined by Richard’s rash and vain excesses, for “Landlord of England art thou, not king”. The king (Jacobi) promptly loses the plot, as he was bound to, confiscates his uncle’s estates and fortune and gives Henry Bolingbroke every reason to get his own back. The Duke of York, another uncle, and played by the imposing John Gray against type as a weak man, stands between them as a loyal subject with an impossible choice: king or country? As Richard falls through successive scenes, he acquires the speeches and bearing of a better man and pathos becomes him. No wonder, really, that recent Richards have been actors of the calibre of Mark Rylance (2003), Kevin Spacey (2005), Eddie Redmayne (2011), Ben Wishaw (2012) and David Tennant (2013). It is undeniably a powerful narrative with an unusual and conflicted title role.
In the middle of the play comes a scene when Richard’s self as anointed king – and therefore an invulnerable being – falls apart. He imagines he can enlist the angels to fight for him but receives news that his allies have either fled or gone over to Bolingbroke. Listen to Jacobi pronounce the question, “What say you now? What comfort have we now?” and feel the despair! From here on, I’m for the sorry Richard, whatever the merits of Jon Finch’s resolved and handsome Bolingbroke. Besides, the future Henry the Fourth is not spared; close to the end of the play he enquires after his ‘dissolute and desperate son’ and learns that the prince has been whooping it up in the taverns and brothels of Eastcheap. The audience, for its part, just looks forward to the first instalment of Hal and the fat knight.
There’s an interesting stage metaphor in Richard II. It comes in a description of the two cousins riding into London together. First, Bolingbroke and then the deposed Richard:
‘As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious ..’
Focus on Jacobi’s performance and you will realise that this fine and ‘well-graced’ actor does not disappoint. If it is deliberately mannered to begin with, then that is in character with – we are told – this most capricious and wilful of kings. Yes, you see an historical chronicle played out but it is more exciting, more ruthless, than some static ceremonial and the upholstered costuming might suggest. The entrance of Richard’s coffin in the last scene with his head sticking out of it makes the point that ‘God save the King’ was once very wishful thinking.
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