and the trailer for episode two
There was some pretty serious hair on view in the BBC's new film of Richard II, a play better-known for its luxuriant verse, and well there might be, given that the adaptation came to us courtesy that most fulsomely-maned of theatre directors, Rupert Goold. (Among his colleagues, only the RSC's Greg Doran can compete in the follicular sweepstakes.) That's all well and good, I can hear you asking, but did Shakespeare's extravagantly lyrical rhetoric survive the stage-to-screen transfer?
The answer is yes in some places and not so well in others, but I can't imagine not being mesmerised by the overabundance of tresses on view. Leading man Ben Whishaw was one thing but who knew that David Suchet and Patrick Stewart took so splendidly to long, flowing locks?
Goold's film, adapted with his longtime colleague Ben Power from the Bard's ceaselessly rhapsodic text, inaugurates a celluloid cycle of history plays under a larger banner title, Shakespeare Unlocked, that forms part of the Cultural Olympiad. Still to come in a subset of offerings known as The Hollow Crown are Richard Eyre directing Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays and Thea Sharrock putting Tom Hiddleston through his paces in Henry V, the Shakespeare play of the moment.
And yet, Richard II poses arguably the greatest cinematic challenge of the lot, dependent as it is on soaring verbal arias that can transfix audiences in the playhouse but are trickier to navigate on screen, not least by contrast with the carousing and military derring-do that course through the sequence of Henry plays.
Goold's approach to some extent can be seen as ironic, not least when one considers the mixed-media bravado that he has brought to such stage productions as Macbeth (with Stewart in the title role) and, preeminently, Six Characters in Search of an Author, still this prolific talent's finest achievement to date. Marked out by a belligerent naturalism entirely lacking in the interpretive leaps to which Goold has been prone on stage - an RSC Merchant of Venice, for instance, set in Las Vegas - this Richard had the perverse effect of containing very little of visual interest. In which case, thank heavens for the follicular splendour - and the words. (Some will have warmed more than I did to the intermittent presence of a pet monkey.)
Whishaw has long seemed a Richard II-in-waiting, the actor's fey, doe-eyed androgyny wedded to a command of classical text that can make its untrammelled way through one or another spoken set piece. And first seen eyes fluttering, flashing a thin, coquettish smile that could dismiss onlookers as readily as it drew them near, Whishaw immediately communicated the divinely anointed manchild who, after all, was only 10 when he acceded to the throne. His cavalier "so much for that" upon the passing of Stewart's baleful John of Gaunt made clear early on that death doesn't seem particularly to register to a ruler who comes to discover humanity at the price of his crown; it takes Richard's surrender of authority for him to acquire a soul.
So perhaps it was inevitable that for all the visual attention paid to thrones, castles, and water (that last element a leitmotif of the text itself), Goold favoured the close-up in a somewhat monotonous attempt to burrow into this baleful king's anguished if newly awakened psyche. I've never seen a Richard on stage whose faux-narcissistic admission, "no deeper wrinkles yet", was so fully borne out, the result here of a camera busily zooming in for the facial kill well before Tom Hughes's full-lipped, smooth-cheeked Aumerle - no beard for him! - came along to administer the fatal blow. The intimacy also made possible a whispery intensity that wouldn't wash in the playhouse, where you'd never be heard beyond the second row.
The result, oddly, was to sideline the Bolingbroke of Rory Kinnear, who seemed to spend much of the time not speaking, head cocked to one side. (On the other hand, theatre buffs will doubtless have thrilled to the mano a mano presence of two such vaunted stage Hamlets.) Far more impressive in smaller parts were Suchet as a steely Duke of York who appeared to have wandered in from a nearby casbah (the actor has a field day with the adjective "plume-plucked") and Lindsay Duncan as Suchet's determinedly maternal wife, who on this evidence must surely some day play Volumnia.
Playing a woman of stature transformed by parental solicitude into a "beggar" on behalf of Aumerle, her errant son, Duncan brought a touch of thespian majesty to a story of kingship laid low. And she served to remind us that Shakespeare's interest in regime change notwithstanding, he's pretty peerless when it comes to matters pertaining to family. And that in a history play cycle defined more or less entirely by men, the ladies get their moment, too.
Thoughts ONTD? I loved it but the close-ups did become distracting. Ben was enchanting.
Really excited for next week, delighted by all the Joe Armstrong in the trailer.
ETA: Episode two trailer here