Made in 2012, a prestige production by the BBC timed to coincide with the London Olympics, The Hollow Crown presents the first tetralogy of Shakespeare history plays -- Richard II, Henry the Fourth Parts One and Two, and Henry V. Richard II, a somewhat morbidly introspective play, dramatizes Henry Bolingbroke's seizure of power from the capricious and weak Richard II. The play is not often performed -- Richard II's peculiarly passive and narcissistic hero doesn't fit the classic mode of tragic protagonist, he's too self-pitying, unpredictable, and histrionic, in short the opposite of figure like King Lear who is said to "every inch a King." Richard II is wistful and, at times, delusional -- it's hard to see what point Shakespeare is making about political power in this play and his character study of Richard, although dense and remarkably penetrating, presents a figure that audiences may have trouble embracing. (Richard II seems to be homosexual although this is only suggested and, unlike Marlowe's Edward II, not in any way thematic to the action -- in fact, Richard II seems much more modern than the moralizing Edward II; the hero is someone who just happens to be gay, although this doesn't necessarily define him. These observations are not necessarily cavils or criticisms of the play -- Richard II contains some of Shakespeare's most ravishing verse, in particular the astonishing soliloquy by John of Gaunt about "this scepter'd isle" England, and, later, the King's morose apostrophe to "the hollow crown", the symbol of regal power that is not worth possessing since it leads only to death and suffering and murder -- "let us sit on the ground and tell sad tales of the death of kings..." When presented with good actors and an effective production, Richard II is emotionally powerful, not exactly tragic in the sense of inspiring awe and pity, but, nonetheless, a compelling experience -- the destruction of Richard II is like the pointless dismemberment of a butterfly, ugly to see, but a necessary consequence of the systems of power controlling medieval England.
Richard II is directed by Rupert Gooal. Ben Whishaw plays Richard with memorable passion -- he swishes about and prances here and there always on the very edge of grotesque caricature, but never quite falling into that trap. His Richard is fundamentally hysteric, a man who sees ruling as the construction of psychodramas in which he is the principal protagonist. Wishaw demonstrates how a great actor can venture right up to the threshold of parody, but exercise the tact and discretion to not slip over into the grotesque. We see Richard II initially as an impossibly slender and girlish maiden-king -- he wears white smocks like a bride. Richard is called upon to adjudicate a dispute between two knights, each of which claim the other has engaged in "complots" against the King. For his own amusement, Richard lets the men believe that they will decide the controversy by a battle to the death. But at the last moment, he capriciously cancels the lethal combat and exiles both -- one of the knights is the ambitious Henry Bolingbroke, the son of old John of Gaunt, a famous man in the kingdom. Richard exiles Bolingbroke for six years, breaking John of Gaunt's heart. Later, to enlarge his coffers (his war chest), Richard goes to John of Gaunt's castle, taunts the old man, and, when he dies, expropriates his wealth. Richard goes off to an Irish war as if hurrying to a holiday in the Bahamas. Bolingbroke uses the interval in which the King is absent to return to England and raise a rebellion against the Criwb. Richard II has no real support and, after much sorrowful complaint, surrenders the "hollow crown" to Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke imprisons the King in the tower, not sure what to do with him. Finally, he signifies, although obliquely, that it would be best if Richard was not around to trouble his regime. Richard's apparent boyfriend, Scroop, an opportunist, leads a company of murderers to the tower where they shoot the King to death using crossbows. (We have earlier seen Richard supervising the painting of a homo-erotic image of Saint Sebastian, caressing the boy who is posing as the arrow-riddled Saint.) Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, conducts a bloody purge, slaughtering what remains of Richard's supporters -- with a half-dozen severed heads at his feet, he studies the pale, spectral corpse of Richard and, ashamed of what he has done, vows to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The play is effectively staged in spectacular medieval buildings and the final scenes in the movie have a shattering force. The great peripateia, the scene in which Richard returns from the Irish wars, only to gradually learn that he has no supporters remaining in England is shot on a beach slowly being inundated by a rising tide, a very effective metaphor for Richard's ultimate doom. The movie has almost no women in it -- there are a few short scenes with a pale girl who is posited to be Richard's queen. These sequences have no emotional charge and could be omitted without any damage to the play or plot. Some of the photography is bizarre for no reason that I can ascertain -- for instance, microscopic close-ups of the King when he confronts the rebel Bolinbroke at his castle are distracting and seem primarily intended to show Whishaw's pale and creamy complexion and the length of his eyelashes. But, in general, the movie is excellent and Whishaw's performance couldn't be bettered -- at the end of the film, when we see his dead body, completely white and seemingly boneless, he seems like one of El Greco's saints, a pale spiral of elongated flesh, tending upward like a flame.