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Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Hollow Crown, Part 1: Richard II.

Caveat: I am no Shakespeare scholar. I come at Shakespeare from the perspective of a pop-culture nerd, meaning that when I lived in London I was the person getting weird looks from the ushers at the Globe Theatre because I'd be all like, "No, don't give me a programme! I don't want spoilers!" Spoilers for King Lear, that is. I get why some people like to read plays before they see them, but I wouldn't read the script of The Avengers before seeing that so why should Richard II be any different? Usually this works out fine as long as I pay attention to the performance, although I did have some trouble the other week when I went to see Alan Cumming's one-man Macbeth, which was kinda hard to follow because, you know, he was playing all the roles. Fortunately I'm Scottish, and all Scottish people are forced to memorise the plot of Macbeth while being beaten with birch twigs and standing on a blasted heath at midnight as a rite of passage, which certainly comes in very useful in situations like this.
The other problem facing me when embarking upon the first installment of the BBC's Hollow Crown series was a complete lack of knowledge about the Wars of the Roses. I'm pretty sure that the Wars of the Roses are a History class staple in England, but Scottish education system tends to concentrate more on the Reformation, mostly for practical reasons because people in Scotland still get into barfights on a semi-regular basis about things that happened during the Reformation. I watched Richard II with a group of Scots and even though we had at least one History degree among us, we still weren't 100% certain whether Richard II took place in the 14th or 15th century until we wikipedia'd it afterwards. (N.B. Watching Shakespeare's English History plays in a roomful of Scots is ideal because the entire plot revolves around English people killing each other, which gives us all a schadenfreude thrill.)
As soon as Richard showed up I knew I was going to love him. I'd never seen Ben Whishaw in anything before, but I can now go on record to say that he's my new #1 casting choice for any roles that require a slimy, effeminate dweeb to Gaius Baltar his way around all the other characters while flopping onto furniture and sobbing about how misunderstood he is. A+ KINGING, BEN WHISHAW.

The first scene consists of Bolingbroke (the guy on the right) challenging James Purefoy to a duel in King Richard's court. Take a look at these two guys: you're going to be seeing a lot of those expressions over the course of this play. As far as I can tell, the main purpose of most of the non-Richard characters  is to provide entertaining "WTF, Richard?" reaction shots to whatever godawful King-decision he's has just made.
Aside from the multitude of comedy reaction shots, my favourite thing about Richard II was how Richard was so obviously styling himself as Jesus. I'll talk a bit more about his costumes later, but seriously. SERIOUSLY. That's some old-style White Jesus shit right there with the robes and the beard and the hair and what-have-you.
THIS PLAY INCLUDES A PRE-DUEL TRAINING MONTAGE WHERE JAMES PUREFOY HITS A PIG'S HEAD WITH A MACE AND HENRY BOLINGBROKE CHARGES AT STRAW DUMMIES WITH A LANCE.
Thanks to the presence of James Purefoy, this movie is KIND OF a sequel to A Knight's tale, right?
Although Bolingbroke and James Purefoy are totally geared up to joust each other to death in the name of honour, Richard loses interest at the last moment and -- I'm not kidding -- decides to stop the fight so he can go for a potty-break in his sparkly gold tent full of exotic pets and handsome manservants. Bolingbroke and James Purefoy are not pleased:
Tragically this is the last we're going to see of Purefoy, because Richard banishes them both. Bolingbroke is super upset about this, even though England is plainly a shithole where it rains 97% of the time and your King is a creepy slimeball who spends more time brushing his hair than doing any actual kinging.
AUMERLE LOOKS GOOD IN BLUE.
Richard and his courtiers hang out on a bridge in their tights, playing with flowers and talking about what an A+ idea it'll be to tax the poor in order to pay for a pointless war in Ireland. Richard is not the keenest mind of his generation, but compared to Aumerle (whose face is caressed lovingly by the camera at every opportunity) he's practically Einstein. Aumerle is the loyalest himbo courtier a dissolute and amoral King could wish for, seriously.

Next up, Richard goes to shake down Patrick Stewart, Bolingbroke's father. It's pretty clear that Patrick Stewart knows that Richard is a complete cockwaffle, but Richard doesn't give a shit because he's the King. ("Richard doesn't give a shit because he's the King" = the actualfacts synopsis of this play, I believe.) Anyway, Patrick Stewart proceeds to kick the bucket and Richard mourns for all of 14 milliseconds before seizing all his assets because girlfriend loooooooves him some gold.
This scene solidly establishes Richard as complete bag of dicks. Also, it's pretty clear from step one that the whole "war in Ireland" plan isn't going to go very well because Richard's national security council consists of a portrait artist and two courtiers. One of the courtiers goes to Wales to muster the Welsh troops, who look like this because everyone who isn't English is, of course, a savage:
To my complete lack of surprise, the portrait artist and his courtier buddy are captured by Bolingbroke, who is back in the country to retake Patrick Stewart's lands and fortune from Richard's dastardly clutches. Up until now I was kind of nonplussed as to the disappointing lack of a body count, but then this happened:
DECAPITATIONS ALL ROUND. It's almost like watching Game of Thrones! (N.B. Bolingbroke's entire rationale for decapitating those two seemed to have been "You're guilty of gaying up the King!" which, yeah, no.)
Here we come to the point where Richard's costumes really come to their own. He's obviously obsessed with the idea of styling himself as Jesus, plus the quantity of gold he wears warms the cockles of my heart. We already know that he's into the sparkles and the riches in a big way, but mostly I enjoy the fact that the costumiers have dressed him in such a way that his opulent wardrobe is really not the typical "I'm a King so I look rich" tradition of royals through the ages. Kings are meant to look rich and powerful but while Richard looks rich, he most emphatically does not look powerful. The combination of loose, Jesus-inspired robes and Ben Whishaw's slight figure make Richard look even more narrow-shouldered and soft when compared to gruff warriors like Bolingbroke in their coarse fabrics and utilitarian armour. The fabric choices alone lend something to his effeminate appearance: pale pastels, pure white, and all of it made from floaty, draped cloth that looks more like the clothes his wife wears than the tough warrior garb worn by most of the other men.
Bolingbroke and his troops come to overthrow Richard, at which point even I am making comedy reaction-shot faces at Richard because he decides to address them from the battlements while wearing all-gold armour and surrounded by cherubs and a gold halo. Amazing. Meanwhile, Aumerle is Richard's "cousin" the same way Patrocles is Achilles' "cousin" in Troy:
Regular readers probably know that I love me some armour, and I've got to fling a whole handful of gold stars at the costume people for Richard II because even Richard's armour makes him look round-shouldered and weak. Anyhow, Richard surrenders to Bolingbroke without a fight because it's pretty damn clear that Richard isn't much of a fighter.
SHAKESPEARE: He always has to include some comedy commoners to alleviate the tension. Always. I'm only bothering to mention this scene because it involved Argus Filch talking to Fleur Delacour. Harry Potter actors! If you want to make a film in Britain then you're going to have to include at least one of them or no one will take you seriously.
It's time for Richard to give up his crown to Bolingbroke, and since it seems likely that this is the last time he'll have a captive audience he milks it and milks it. Seriously, Richard spends more time talking about giving up the crown than he did trying to keep the crown in the first place. He has a lot of emotions. Also he wears an extra-special Sparkly Jesus costume made from translucent linens. It's pretty rad:
Richard's You-can-be-the-King-now speech takes so long it involves props, tears, and at least two instances of him prostrating himself on the floor. Richard II: Drama King.
This inspires some of the best "WTF, Richard?" reaction shots of the entire play:
Richard is flung into a dungeon but Aumerle remains loyal because he's the Best Boyfriend Ever. Honestly it's kind of inexplicable why he even cares so much, but the great thing is that it leads to this awesome scene with Aumerle and his parents. It's the immortal "stop trying to read my Facebook!" argument, with Aumerle's dad being all, "What's in that letter, son?" and Aumerle being like, "NOTHING!!!!" because that never sounds suspicious.
Unfortunate truth: the letter is actually part of a plot for Aumerle and some other dudes to assassinate Bolingbroke and get Richard back on the throne, so the entire Aumerle family decamps to Bolingbroke's court so Bolingbroke can a) decide whether or not to execute Aumerle for treason, and b) mediate the 14th-century equivalent of a Jerry Springer family dispute. Bolingbroke, as always, is not amused:
Deciding that the only way to prove his loyalty to the crown is to kill Richard, Aumerle goes to the cave where Richard is now languishing in  -- seriously -- a loincloth. At this point I was like, "We have four minutes until the end of the play. Can they really manage to insert more Jesus imagery before then?"
Answer: Yes.

Things I learnt from Richard II
  1. People in 14th Century England were suicidally loyal to their Kings, regardless of how crazy, incompetent or unappealing those Kings actually were.
  2. Richard II was really sparkly. Like, Edward Cullen sparkly. 
  3. Aumerle looks good in blue.
  4. Henry Bolingbroke Doesn't Like Dick
Next: Henry IV Part 1, starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons

52 comments:

  1. you think that's sparkly? go look at Richard II's actual personal travel altar piece. The club cannot handle this amount of bling and lapis lazuli, which was more expensive than bling. Also, the real Richard II had golden curls.

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  2. theoncominghope1 July 2012 at 11:11

    You had me at James Purefoy...also isn't Whishaw way too skinny for a royal of that time period?


    Regardless, I feel like I have to watch this. Though i will probably end up preferring Patrick Stewart's performance as King John in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. That is all.

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  3. theoncominghope1 July 2012 at 11:12

    Isn't that bc blue dyes were actually MADE from bling back in ye day?

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  4. eh, everyone looks wrong for "the time period" so who cares. i thought whishaw looked pretty good, altho apparently richard II was meant to be 6 feet tall so maybe not. either way: INBREEDING.

    i've never seen men in tights!!! i should get on that. i had no idea patrick stewart was in it!

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  5. yessss. TBH you just CAN'T "realistically" do a lot of time periods for modern tv/movies because the aesthetic was so ferociously tacky and opulent, like jewels on EVERYTHING. so i get what you mean.

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  6. Richard's imitation of Christ aside, the Saint being painted at the beginning is Saint Sebastian. He's the one who is always painted being shot full of arrows (sound familiar?) and who never seems to be particularly upset about that development. He's also the gayest Saint around and has sort of been adopted by certain quarters of non-hetero society.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Sebastian


    So I'd say that imagery-wise there were aspects of both Jesus and Saint Sebastian in Richard's death. Which I would suggest was a more modern insert as I don't believe Sebastian was particularly venerated in England at that time.

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  7. On the history side of things: if my school was anything to go by, English kids don't get taught anything much about the Wars of the Roses either. We basically got told 'they happened, it was terrible, then Henry Tudor turned up and everything was alright'. It wasn't until I got to A Levels that I learned there was a little more to it than that. And Richard II isn't one of Shakespeare's better-known plays (the only bit which has passed into popular knowledge is the 'this scepter'd isle' speech), so in this case, I expect a large number of the people watching had no idea what was going to happen.


    I missed it myself, but based on this (and recommendations from my more cultured friends) I'll have to go and watch it. I was warned that the portrayal of the Welsh soldiers was painfully anachronistic, and I see what they meant there...

    (What's wrong with Disqus? Not letting me log in for some reason. Posting via Facebook instead.)

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  8. Great review! I can't wait for your posts on the next two plays (Henry IV, 1 &2 and Henry V)!!

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  9. I laughed my head off reading this blog. However, I do love Ben Whishaw and think he is the best young actor around. I do not think he is round-shouldered either. Any way, back to you, do you do any other writing - other than this blog?

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  10. amazing review! (is the guy's name not james mowbray, though? idk haha i know next to nothing about english history so i could be wrong!) can't wait for your reviews on henry IV and V (and tom hiddleston's leather pants ;D )

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  11. Don't forget about the queen in Mary Blue, too!

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  12. Whishaw played Ariel in Julie Taymor's The Tempest film. His interactions with Helen Mirren are some of the best parts of the film.

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  13. There were some great WTF faces. Bolingbroke, especially, I was very impressed by the consistency of expression.


    Your point about the round-shouldered armour is brilliant - I noticed but didn't really twig, if you know what I mean. Too distracted by the instagram-style blurred shots of him sweating nervously.

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  14. Psst, you confused right and left when you pointed out Bolingbroke in the third pic!;)

    Apart from that, perfect! It's always so much fun to read your blog after watching something!=)

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  15. hermione_vader2 July 2012 at 11:17

    The Jesus imagery is too much. I hope this comes to PBS in the U.S.A. because I really want to watch this and laugh. I'm not sure how I can take this seriously since Richard II seems like such a loopy dickwad (though I'm sure the production is well-done).

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  16. hermione_vader2 July 2012 at 11:18

    The Jesus imagery is too much. I hope this comes to PBS in the U.S.A. because I really want to watch this and laugh. I'm not sure how I can take this seriously since Richard II seems like such a loopy dickwad (though I'm sure the production is well-done).

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  17. hermione_vader2 July 2012 at 11:33

    The Jesus imagery is too much. I hope this comes to PBS in the U.S.A. because I really want to watch this and laugh. I'm not sure how I can take this seriously since Richard II seems like such a loopy dickwad (though I'm sure the production is well-done).

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  18. as a minor historical quibble, when Richard (conveniently) died, there was talk that he was murdered (no! *really*?) So Henry IV was forced to display the body, to show Richard died "naturally". So I admit I'm not a fan of the Christ/St. Sebastian imagery there. BTW, rumor has it that Richard died due to hot coals inserted in his rectum. Since he was thought to be gay. The things one learns in history!

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  19. I never viewed this as Wars of the Roses really, more as the prelude to it. My knowledge was that the Wars of the Roses began during the reign of Henry VI. I know way too much about that period of history. Anyway! I really enjoyed this! sparkly is definitely the right word for Richard. I can't wait for the next plays!

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  20. Pants_are_a_must3 July 2012 at 08:08

    He's there for about 2 minutes, but they are glorious 2 minutes. The movie is really worth watching in general.

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  21. Like...I am a Shakespeare scholar -- I am actually sitting in the Shakespeare Library of the Shakespeare Institute where I am doing postgraduate work on Shakespeare and procrastinating on an essay about the history of Shakespeare scholarship as I write this comment -- but my first reaction to this was just to go, "BUT, THERE IS A SEBASTIAN FLYTE (yes, also like Saint Sebastian, because he is super gay and super Catholic) IN RICHARD II, AND A CHARLES RYDER IN HENRY IV, AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET? WHYYYYY?" Because I'm apparently a bigger geek for the big!gay!Oxford!love! of "Brideshead Revisited" than I am for Shakespeare.

    Anyway, awesome recap. This looks much more entertaining than "Richard II" has any right to be and I really ought to catch up with this series.

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  22. I am totally with you on the first point -- pretty hard to play off "stabbed full of wood" as natural causes, guys! -- but I think you might be thinking of Edward II in the second part. He was definitely gay, and his gruesome rumored murder is, um, delightfully portrayed in Christopher Marlowe's play about him from around the same time as "Richard II." And in "Chronicle" by Michael Crichton. And...not in "Braveheart", but his boyfriend is thrown out of window by his dad. Apparently people are fans of the twisted homophobic murder?

    (Unless two kings were killed that way, in which case -- ENGLAND. Be more careful of your monarchy!)

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  23. YES! I got the whole Brideshead Revisited kind of reunion thing! I prefer Ben Whishaw's Sebastian to Anthony Andrews' though..

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  24. I think he does a great job, and he's definitely my favorite part of the film -- I just have issues with the film. Namely that it seriously prioritizes the Charles/Julia relationship instead of treating both halves of the story with roughly equal care (as the book does) and that I felt like the made Sebastian more clearly gay only to emphasize how Not Gay At All Charles is. *hands* I still adored Whishaw as Sebastian!

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  25. At last, a detailed visual breakdown of all the reasons Henry Bollingbroke doesn't like Dick! You make my life.

    (I have been off Internet due to new job, and celebrated my first non-comatose weekend by rolling in all your delicious posts.)

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  26. i feel like an idiot for not realising that it was st sebastian when i first saw it! st sebastian is one of the few saints i actually know, thanks to the Momus song "lucky like st sebastian". ;)

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  27. haha, thank you! :)

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  28. haha tragic. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, TORN ASUNDER BY DECADES + DIFFERENT PLAYS. have you seen henry iv yet? i watched it last night. SO AWESOME.

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  29. i'm sure it'll air in the US -- this series is kind of a big deal and it definitely has an audience

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  30. oh, oops! :) and thanks!

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  31. bolingbroke slayed me.

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  32. i heard this! i haven't seen it, but i mean to at some point.

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  33. um, yes, i think it is. OH WELL. :) i saw henry iv last night so there should be a review up soon enough! :)

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  34. thanks! :) i don't think ben whishaw is round-shouldered, but he's very slight and narrow and the way they costumed him seemed intentionally soft and feminised, and like they were trying to make him seem MORE round-shouldered.

    yes, i do write other things! :) my tumblr is hellotailor, btw.

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  35. well, i saw henry iv last night so i expect there'll be a review of that up in the next couple of days!

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  36. how do you mean, "made from bling"?

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  37. oh, is there something wrong with disqus? i updated it recently -- idk. it seems ok to me now, anyway.

    yes, i heard afterwards that actually MOST ppl don't know much abuot the wars of the roses, so i felt a little better about that one. ;) the welsh soldiers were a little baffling tho.

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  38. Thanks for the reply. Do you have published short stories or novels?

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  39. No, I'm afraid not! One day, maybe! Why do you ask??

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  40. LIKE THEY DID NOT HAVE ENOUGH TRAGEDY ALREADY.

    And I haven't seen Henry IV yet, but it is one of my favorite plays so I'm really really excited for it!

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  41. I had like... the vaguest idea of what was going to happen. I *did* like how Richard gets Boromir-ed in the same way as in the painting of St Sebastian we see nearer to the beginning.

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  42. God, I need to finish this, clearly -- one of my friends remarked on seeing some screencaps "wow, Richard looks like everything you want to be" -- sparkly and languid, hopefully, rather than a loopy spoiled weirdie who thinks God's on his side. But oh my God, your reviews are golden (no pun intended) and holy Jesus imagery, Batman.

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  43. I think you are talented and would buy something you wrote.

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  44. Well, it's sort of a sequel to 'A Knights tale' in that Richard II is the son of James Purefoy's character in that on (The Black Prince)....

    Loved this recap! Richard's waifishness seemed right on form...

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  46. Anyone else found it hard to follow because of the 'old-English' (English is not my native language but normally I don't have problems with understanding it)

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    Replies
    1. Shakespeare doesn't technically write in Old English which you would find way worse to understand than this :) but yes even Shakespeare's early modern English is difficult for a lot of British people now. We understand because the actors help us out with gestures and by stressing certain words. And also because we have read Shakespeare in school and something has oozed in through the skin.

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