Paul: The BBC has a history of adapting Shakespeare, almost as a public trust, but not always to the greatest ends. There have been some dodgy productions over the years, particularly during their attempt to cover all of Shakespeare's works from 1978 through 1985.
Those were television adaptations, however, keeping the productions theatrical and more in line with tradition. Now, the BBC has commissioned a four part adaptation of Shakespeare's Henriad, Richard II, Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, and Henry V, to be produced as film projects.
The first, Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold and starring Ben Whishaw as King Richard premiered last week, and I have to say I was fairly impressed.
Kelvin: Me too. I have a passing familiarity with Henry IV and I'm very fond of Henry V, but I'd not read or seen Richard II before, so I didn't know what to expect.
Paul: I had read the play in college, but it wasn't one that I was very familiar with either.
Kelvin: I think what I liked most about it — apart from the performances, which I'm sure we'll get to in a bit — was how it looked. It kept Shakespeare's text intact, more or less, but it didn't look in the slightest bit stagey. For a TV movie, it looked very filmic.
I shouldn't be surprised though. The director, Rupert Goold, also did an adaptation of Macbeth for the BBC in 2010, and that looked stunning.
Paul: I've heard good things about that production, but haven't seen it.
You're right though. This was a beautiful film.
I was particularly taken with the way the colors and settings took a turn darker as the story progressed. The contrast between Richard lounging about in the forest with his cousins to having ash and dirt rain down upon him in the end was stunning.
Kelvin: Yes, the imagery was well chosen throughout, although the bit towards the end where his signature in the sand is washed away by the tide was a bit much for me.
Still, one dodgy moment in a two and a half hour film is not a bad result.
Paul: Well, they laid on the symbolism fairly thick throughout. I wasn't bothered by that, but thought the Saint Sebastian imagery was a bit much.
Kelvin: I didn't have as much of a problem with that, although in hindsight I can see how it might have been a bit too cute.
Paul: It's a bit overdone in film when going for homoerotic imagery. And I would have preferred his death to be the traditional stabbing instead of recreating Sebastian's death by arrows.
Kelvin: Yes, at the time I thought that was quite neat, but I understand how it might be a bit strained.
Paul: I seem to remember some scholars saying that the murder of Richard was a sort of tribute to the memory of Marlowe, who was also stabbed to death just two years prior to the play's debut. As the play was inspired (some would say too closely inspired) by Marlowe's Edward II, I always thought that was a nice way to allow the scene to play.
But I'm an English Lit Nerd.
It's not something that would have occurred to me, but it wouldn't be a surprise.
Paul: I'm not surprised that the director decided to focus more on the historical arguments the play poses. And Sebastian's symbolic acceptance of his fate and "heroism born of weakness" concept is very appropriate for what they're doing here.
It just seemed a bit cliché to me. Or easy, maybe, rather than cliché.
Kelvin: Perhaps it's because I didn't come to it with the same background, but I didn't have a problem with that aspect.
Paul: One thing I was very impressed with (although a little put off by a the same time) was the way Goold and the performers played up the ambiguity of the story.
The central conflict here is between the concept of the Divine Right of Kings and the people's right to choose (or something to that effect), and the conflict between Richard and Bolingbroke is presented with a fairly even hand.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. I believe that Richard tends to be portrayed as more villainous in most adaptations and Bolingbroke as more of a schemer. Here, Richard seemed more naive and Bolingbroke seemed caught up in something larger than himself.
Paul: I know the text itself leaves it open to interpretation. The performances can lean the play one way or the other with just the use of inflection and body language, but here, you're right. Richard just seems naive and Bolingbroke really seems to be innocent of any larger scheming.
Kelvin: Yes, a lot of it is down to the performances. Ben Whishaw's Richard was fascinating.
Paul: I still have a hard time believing he played Pingu in Nathan Barley. That entertains me to no end!
Kelvin: Yes, it's a bit of a jump!
Paul: I was completely unaware that he was one of the most acclaimed Hamlets of the last decade!
Kelvin: I did not know that. People bang on about David Tennant's Hamlet all the time, but I'd not heard about Whishaw. I can believe it though.
His Richard was so, well, weird. He was so detached that he seemed almost like some sort of alien; he didn't understand this world of bearded, angry men, and so was ill-equipped to deal with it. Yet, at the same time, they did this thing where Whishaw was watching everything around him with this impish little smile.
It was a very interesting portrayal.
Paul: Yes. Very subtle. And I say that after I thought he was going to be playing it a bit more camp in the start.
Kelvin: Yes, they were hinting at camp and effeminate, but there was more going on there.
Paul: That's another example of how the performance of the text influences the meaning. Richard's dialogue is very flowery and filled with poetic metaphor, whereas the rest of the cast's language is much more down to earth.
That's something Shakespeare was experimenting with here, when normally, all of the upper class would have spoken in poetry, with plain language and prose reserved for the lower classes. Which also says something about the themes of the play itself, really.
You're right. He does comes off as alien, almost.
Kelvin: Sort of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
What other performances stood out for you?
Kelvin: Oddly enough, I thought James Purefoy was very good, and so I was disappointed — not knowing the play — that he didn't get much screen time.
Paul: That was my biggest disappointment. I was really
hoping for more.
I have a bit of a man-crush on Purefoy. He is great in everything he does.
Kelvin: He was excellent here, snarling his lines and glaring at everyone.
I loved the training scene right at the beginning too, like something out of a Rocky movie!
Paul: Loved that!
Kelvin: Somewhere out there there is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead type side-story in which Purefoy's Mowbray is running about kicking ass.
In the rain.
Paul: The real Thomas de Mowbray eventually died of the Plague in Venice in 1399, just a year after his actual banishment. So that's disappointing. Unless it was a ruse!
Kelvin: Of course, he faked his death so he could strike at his enemies without warning!
This is a whole new level of nerd-dom, you realize?
Kelvin: "Venetians are a cowardly and superstitious lot"
I have no idea what you mean.
Paul: LOL! And then we're back around to Marlowe (in a manner). Purefoy as secret spy Marlowe, writing Shakespeare's plays and having adventures. That would be amazing!
Kelvin: Write it!
Paul: What with the whole faking his death rumors and whatnot.
Paul: You've gotta be careful when you suggest Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays. People get pissed.
Kelvin: Yeah, but who could argue with an action hero Marlowe? Fools, that's who.
Anyway… I also thought Patrick Stewart did an excellent job — in fact I smiled as soon as I saw him in the crowd in that first scene — and I was impressed at how David Morrissey — who has such a likeable screen presence — became such a hissable Northumberland.
Paul: YES! I was just about to say the same thing about Stewart. And Morrissey was also surprisingly threatening.
Kelvin: Stewart was Macbeth in the production I mentioned earlier. He was, of course, excellent.
Paul: David Suchet's Duke of York took me by surprise. Not his performance, but the turns his character took. He played two-sided with ease, and his eventual almost manic support for Bolingbroke was kind of disturbing.
Kelvin: Yes, a case of overcompensating perhaps. Showing his loyalty through a rabid desire to have his own son executed for treason.
Paul: A rabid excess passed on to his son.
Kelvin: I'm going to be a bit of a snob here, but one of the things I like about these BBC productions — and you don't get this with other British TV channels — is that they can stack a programme like this with actors who are so good that when you ask "which other performances impressed you?" I could go on for ages.
Paul: Oh I agree. I loved the short appearance of David Bradley as The Gardner, for example.
Kelvin: Yep! My thoughts exactly.
A minor role, but let's stick a real heavyweight in there, because we can.
Paul: Or Lindsay Duncan as the Dutchess of York. Amazing work in a very small role.
Kelvin: Quite so. I suppose this is a bit of what Game of Thrones has, although in this case, the script is better!
Paul: Ha! It also has Game of Thrones' Lucian Msamati as the Bishop of Carlisle (in another walking along the beach scene, no less!). Again, smaller parts, but outstanding performances.
Kelvin: I've heard actors say that Shakespeare brings the best out of them, and it seems to be true on the basis of this evidence.
Paul: Maybe the only performance that didn't really hit me like it should have, though, was Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke.
Kelvin: Yes, I wasn't sure about Kinnear myself.
Paul: The performance was solid enough, but as we've already mentioned, he played the character in a more reactive than proactive way. It kind of leeched a strong sense of purpose from the role.
Kelvin: Again, I'm not familiar with the original text, so I don't know if it's true of that, but yes, he seemed to fade into the background for much of the film.
Paul: There's a school of thought that Shakespeare was possibly influenced by Machiavelli's The Prince when writing Bolingbroke and he was manipulating appearances to get himself on the throne – at least from the time of his banishment on.
Culminating in the murder of Richard being ordered "accidentally" as a "misunderstanding."
Kelvin: And then the very public pilgrimage to Jerusalem to beg forgiveness for his "accidental" part in the murder.
It's good PR.
Paul: Exactly. Kinnear plays the character so sincerely that it's hard to really think anything bad about him. Bolingbroke, I mean. Not Kinnear himself.
Kelvin: Yes, he doesn't play him as a schemer as far as I could tell.
There were the silent nods here and there, but they came across less as subtle string-pulling, and more a decent man who's found himself out of his depth.
Paul: I would have liked a little more duplicity in the performance, if only to make it stand out a bit more. Imagine Purefoy in that role! He'd have been hard to restrain.
Kelvin: Oh yes indeed.
Paul: That may have gone too far in the other direction!
Kelvin: The scenes where he did take charge — the beach at the beginning of his exile, and the execution by the moat — showed that Kinnear does have the acting chops, so I must assume that it was a deliberate move to play Bolingbroke as a more passive sort.
Paul: It had to come down to the direction. It's almost as though Goold was directing this during its original run, shortly after Queen Elizabeth took the throne, and didn't want to upset her supporters or those allying against her.
Kelvin: Ha! Yes, excellent point.
It's funny, but I was thinking something along similar lines as I was watching it.
This will get a bit involved and possibly a bit tinfoil-hat, so be warned.
Paul: I'm buckled in.
Kelvin: The BBC commissioned these four films — bizarre as it seems — as part of their Olympics coverage, to celebrate Britishness.
Yet what they've delivered — in this first film at least — is a story of an ineffective ruler and an England that's almost bankrupt.
That's not really very Olympic.
Given who's in charge right now, and how they've not been a friend of the BBC, I did find myself wondering if there was a deliberate political point being made in not only the choice of play to adapt, but the way it was adapted.
Which, of course, would be in keeping with Shakespeare's plays being used for political gain, as you suggest with Elizabeth above.
Okay, tinfoil hat off now.
Paul: That's bloody brilliant right there.
And it ties right in the historical record, where in 1601 the Earl of Essex paid the Globe Theatre to perform Richard II on the eve of their attempted insurrection.
Paul: There it is!
Kelvin: I am probably wrong, but while the 2012 BBC adaptation of Richard II says a lot about Britain in 2012, I'm not sure it's got anything to do with celebration.
Paul: Well it will be leading up to Henry V right before the beginning of the games.
Kelvin: Yes, Henry V is about as ENGLAND! WOO! as it gets, so we'll see.
I was wondering if there will be any continuity of characterisation in these films, and if Jeremy Irons' Henry IV will share Kinnear's odd passivity.
That would be interesting.
Paul: That's one of the things I'm really looking forward to. I want to see how all of these plays work together as performances. I've read them, but never seen them played out like this.
Kelvin: I have to admit, as a comics geek, when I first discovered that some of Shakespeare's plays had actual continuity, I got a bit excited!
Paul: Me too.
Kelvin: The BBC plays of the 70's and 80's kept the same cast and sets for Henry IV and V, which is an interesting approach. I'd like to see those too. I suspect they may not be as impressive as this current crop, however.
Paul: I don't know. I'd love to see Jon Finch playing King Henry!
Kelvin: We have them in our DVD library at work. I should really make the time to watch them one of these days.
Paul: Since he played Jerry Cornelius in The Final Programme, I'd watch him in anything.
Kelvin: Ha! King Henry, Eternal Champion!
Kelvin: Oh gosh yes.
Paul: So, any final thoughts?
Kelvin: Only that I am quite proud to be a licence fee payer. When people moan about paying a £145 "tax" each year, I'll point to stuff like this and hope they realise how it's so worth it.
I was very impressed .
Paul: You make me feel bad about stealing it!
It was co-financed by NBC, so it'll turn up somewhere there, I assume. And WNET, so you'll get it for free.
Paul: I was also very impressed. Aside from one or two minor issues, this was exactly what I was hoping for. I suppose if I have to give it a rating (and the software setup here does make it necessary) I'd give it a . Almost perfect.
Kelvin: I'd agree. The only niggles I had were minor, so I'll go with too.
On the basis of this one, I can't wait for the next three films.
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.
Kelvin is also writing and illustrating the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, Horror Among Thieves. You can contribute to the project, along with other LoTP games at indiegogo!
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.