BBC undertook to create four long film versions of Shakespeare’s “history plays” – Richard II, Henry IV (Part 1 and Part 2) and Henry V. The cast for each play is impressive, and judging by Richard II that already aired, they are all at the top of their game (even if it is odd to see David Suchet aka Poirot play Duke of York and Patrick Stewart aka dude from Startrek play John of Gaunt).
Richard II was very good, I thought. It was slow and thoughtful, not overwhelming with narrative detail and sudden changes of characters that often confuses the viewer like myself (and looking up who is who in the play is too bothersome). It does however paint a rather strange picture of Richard II who in Shakespeare’s play, I think, it’s not a very likable character. In this interpretation he comes across as a Jesus figure (which is either an attempt to redeem Richard II and every oppressive king or an attempt to portray Jesus as a kind of king who is unlike any other king etc etc ). Richard II does not care for either his supporters among the noble nor his people – he robs both in order to pursue his wars in Ireland. And yet when Bolingbrook takes over, makes him give up the crown and eventually causes his death (not directly but certainly not without some indirect encouragement), Richard is suddenly a martyr. A martyr for what?
Here he is killed in the Tower with an obvious reference to Saint Sebastian.
And then there is this long take that goes from Henry IV’s face to Richard II’s dead face to his pose in the coffin and up to the sculpture of Jesus and the credits:
Sure, there is plenty in the play about the “divine right” of the kings but not enough to make sure a religious martyrdom story out of it. Unless there is a kind of overall intention for the entire series – Hollow Crown – to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of religious symbols. So in this case, as I suspect, it isn’t that the kings are raised to the level of Jesus, but Jesus is pulled down to the level of kings. Religion is as the realm of scheming and backstabbing – martyrs are just retrospective attempts to whitewash the dirty filthy mess of power-acquisition and power-redistribution…
We’ll see later tonight when I get to film 2: Henry IV, Part I (with Jeremy Irons in the title role).