PBS Great Performances begins the Hollow Crown: ‘Richard II’

Before television, graphic novels and widespread literacy, plays conveyed history or at least one version of it. In Shakespeare’s time, there was a lot of history to entangle. The aristocracy wasn’t about fancy parties among the eternally polite and well-dressed. This was a time of dirty politics and assassination wasn’t altogether outlawed. This “The Hollow Crown” looks at four Shakespeare plays that are closely connected: “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V.” This Friday, PBS will broadcast the gorgeous production of “Richard II,” Sept. 20, 2013 at 9 p.m. (Check local listings).

This series is lavishly produced. If you want to see detailed beautiful costumes and pageantry; this production is sure to inspire costume designers everywhere and live on in your dreams of a fantasy of peaceful court life. The title for the series comes from King Richard II’s speech late in the play.

It’s Act 3, Scene 2 on the coast of Wales with the Barkloughly castle in view.

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: 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,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Death has already been alluded to when Stephen Scroop tells the king talks about having “felt the worse of death’s destroying wound/And lie full low, graved in the hollow ground.”

Ben Whishaw is 33 and 5-foot-9. You might know him for his role of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in the 2006 movie, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” In 2004, he played Hamlet in Trevor Nunn’s production.

In this production, Whishaw’s Richard II is a selfish, indulgent man who might have been better as a monk in a dark cave. The play begins with him unwisely settling a dispute. Richard II decides that his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear who also played Bill Tanner in the Bond movies “Quantum of Solace” and “Skyfall”) and Mowbray (James Purefoy who played Mark Antony in “Rome”) should both be exiled instead of settling their differences in a duel.

Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) will die and not see his son again. Richard then takes all of John of Gaunt’s land to help fund his war in Ireland. During his absence the unhappy nobles join forces and Bolingbroke returns and finds sympathetic allies in the Duke of York (David Suchet of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” fame) and Northumberland (David Morrissey who plays the Governor in “The Walking Dead”).

This adaptation compares Richard II with Saint Sebastian. Ben Power wrote the screenplay adaptation. BBC2 originally broadcast this series in the summer of 2012. Whishaw’s performance received a 2013 British Academy Television Award nomination. Rupert Goold directs.

The historical Richard II (1367-1400) ascended to the throne at age 10.  While he sought to put an end to the Hundred Years’ War, he was to a certain extent responsible for the War of the Roses. His policies were not entirely new or unrealistic, but the manner in which he carried them out was problematic. By usurping the throne, Bolingbroke brown into question the king’s divine right to rule.

Don’t miss this wonderful production of “Richard II.” Don’t miss the whole series. PBS makes this easy. The entire series will be available VoD online after the initial broadcast. Check local listing and visit the PBS website for videos and helpful information.

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