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Review: (****) The Hollow Crown, Richard II

The Hollow Crown (Series 1) is available:

Streaming: The Hollow Crown’, Series 1, a 4 disc set of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & 2, and Henry V is available for streaming on Amazon Video / Prime at $2.99 per episode.

UK: ‘The Hollow Crown’, Series 1 (DVD), a 4 disc set of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & 2, and Henry V is available through Amazon.co.uk at £15.95

USA: ‘The Hollow Crown’, Series 1 (DVD), a 4 disc set of Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & 2, and Henry V is available through Amazon.com at $16.35


Our Bottom Line:

A highly coloured, eye-catching adaptation.


Our Review (****)

This is a highly coloured, eye-catching adaptation directed by Rupert Goold, two time winner of the Lawrence Olivier Award for best director, a former associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, London, since 2013.


Richard of Bordeaux was king of England from 1377 to 1399 and Shakespeare made him a bit of a tragedian:


‘…. for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene …’


The Quarto editions do call this story a ‘Tragedie’. The First Folio changes this to ‘The Life and Death of King Richard the Second’.


Derek Jacobi, who played Richard in the 1978 BBC production ( our review), points out that this Player-King is ‘always his own audience’, which gives the part both an extraordinary cogency and a dramatic vulnerability.  Henry Bolingbroke may depose Richard but that is almost a pedestrian exercise compared to what Richard makes of it:


‘Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon,

Wanting the manage of unruly jades.’


It is the modest hope of the producers that this film (and the others in the two series) will define Shakespearean acting for a generation. Well, with actors of this quality they may be right! Ben Wishaw plays Richard; Rory Kinnear, Bolingbroke; David Suchet, York; Lindsay Duncan, the Duchess of York; David Morrissey, Northumberland; and Patrick Stewart, whom Goold directed as Macbeth in his 2010 film, as John of Gaunt. There is also a cameo part for David Bradley – who else but Argus Filch, the caretaker at Hogwarts? – as the Gardener, whose pity for his ‘wasteful king’ is only matched by the pitiless accuracy of his stock metaphor of a land where the ‘fruits of duty’ are now strangled by ‘noisome weeds’.


Bolingbroke tidys up, rather like a mini-excavator. Kinnear does very well to look like an innocent whose every best instinct and inclination is nipped in the bud by murderous providence, for which he would apologise. In many a scene he stands there, in neat doublet and chain mail, head to one side, silently wondering what on earth he has to do or say next. In that magnificent scene in Act 4 (at 1:33:21) in Westminster Hall he is not a man to seize a crown – as invited to by Richard – but would rather, it seems, have it ‘resigned’ to him. And yet, when he has it – rolled along the floor to his feet – there is absolutely no hesitation, no flicker of sadness, at dispatching cousin Richard to the Tower. He recognises, with Northumberland (not yet the enemy of Henry IV Part 1) that – at least for kings – policy always trumps love.


Richard has to give up his crown and in so doing undoes himself: ‘for I must nothing be’. The crown is very evident in this film, very much in focus as the symbol of rule, but there should be a fade to bleeding thorns. This is a picture of an anointed king who suffers grievous loss: loss of authority and dignity for sure but also the loss of dear friends, his Queen, and his understanding of what he is. It is a bold opening shot that takes in a rood (crucifix) hanging above the throne. Then there’s a portrait being painted of the martyred St Sebastian and Richard’s finger delicately touching the model’s chest, just at the entry point of one of the arrows. You’ll remember that when he is murdered. And there’s his body in his coffin, seen from above, with just a loincloth, knees very slightly bent, as Christ’s are on the Cross. Redemption beckons.


When Richard appears on the walls of Flint castle and looks down upon Bolingbroke, York, and Northumberland, the king is flanked by trumpeting angels and has a golden disc behind him. It looks over the top, even tacky, but it works, not least when – out of their sight – his ‘majesty’ is shown to be mortally afraid. Wishaw may be the slighter man but he is massive when he speaks his verses. If diction can be fine-boned, then here it is. The camera is rarely off his face and eyes and when it’s not it follows his flowing hair and/or the folds of his cream robes. It may be a fragile look but it is a serene and brave performance.


The film’s locations do ground the whole work. Fourteenth century England appears in its castles, vaulted chambers, tournament lists, woodlands and beaches. It’s attractive but not too distracting and the use of a low wall, fronting a mud flat, as the executioner’s block – for Richard’s favourites, Bushy and Green – is a choice piece of extra setting. Not quite this ‘earth of majesty  … this demi-paradise’ that Gaunt famously extols.


There are some excesses: swelling music, Moorish headdress, Richard on a white donkey, the Welsh in war paint, heads of traitors – but I’m happy with the authentic thud of crossbow bolts and pleased to agree with higher authority and go with Mark Lawson’s verdict in the Guardian (29.06.2012) that ‘this feels as good as TV Shakespeare is going to get.’


Alan Brown
Reviews Editor,


Next ‘up’, from ‘The Hollow Crown’ is Henry IV, Part 1 with Jeremy Irons as Henry and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.


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Ben Wishaw as Richard II. Photo. BBC.

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