The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

God's Gift

The BBC Shakespearewatch continues...



RICHARD II


Not totally keen, I'm afraid. Another of Shakespeare's 'c and c' plays (c*nts and castles).

A brief synopsis. King Richard II exiles Henry Bolingbroke, the son of his uncle, John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt dies. Richard II spends all of John of Gaunt's money partying and slaughtering Irishmen. Henry Bolingbroke returns from exile and wants his inheritance back. Things snowball, and people decide they would rather have Henry as king instead of Richard. With the help of the Duke of York (another of Richard's uncles), Henry persuades Richard to give up the crown. Henry is then made king Henry IV, and Richard is locked up in Pomfret Castle.

And that's it.

DAME SALLY SHAKESPEARE: How many acts?

SHAKESPEARE'S TYPIST: Four.

DAME SALLY SHAKESPEARE: Oh, and, er... the Duke of York's son gets involved in a plot to kill Henry IV, but the plot is discovered and he gets forgiven. And Richard gets accidentally stabbed, or something. 'Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh'. How many acts?

SHAKESPEARE'S TYPIST: Five.

DAME SALLY SHAKESPEARE: Excellent! Foaming meads all round!

The problem with this play is that you can write a synopsis of it in one paragraph. It contains very, very little incident. There are no battles. There is no fighting. There is no baking of people into pies. Just for once, only two people die - and one of those deaths is through old age. It really is terribly uneventful.

Which leaves plenty of room for characterisation, and in particular, that of Richard II. But again, I'm not convinced. From what I understand from my Oxford History of Britain, Richard II was a bit of an arsehole. He was arrogant, impetuous, vindictive and believed his own hype. He was God's gift.

But the play doesn't really get that across. We don't really get enough of Richard II doing the being-an-arsehole stuff. There is one scene, where he is lounging about with his mates making sick jokes about John of Gaunt's imminent death, but that's it. Compared to Richard III's sustained campaign of manipulation and alienation... he is just not a big enough prick, I'm afraid.

The rest of the play is essentially one long whinge. It's a beautifully written whinge. It is a whinge explored in great depth. It’s a whinge described in poetic terms. But it is, basically, an unpleasant person feeling sorry for himself. Full of self-justification. It's all somebody else's fault, of course. They did nothing wrong. They just had a cruel childhood (that Watt Tyler, he's sooooo mean!)

Richard II gains some nobility when his crown has been taken from him - he shows some emotional maturity and sensitivity in his last scene with his wife - but on the whole, he never shows enough self-awareness to be sympathetic. He's stuck on 'git' mode throughout.

He's played by Derek Jacobi, possibly best known for being the best actor out of the two Doctor Who's to have appeared in Frasier. He brings some gravitas and maturity to the role... but, prob is, Richard II shouldn't have these things. His reaction, when Henry IV strips him of his crown, is not one of noble acceptance. As written, he resorts to bitter asides and snide innuendoes. He won't 'let it lie'. He seethes, he rankles, he rages, he wallows in self-pity. But Jacobi plays against all of that. He's playing it for real, but he plays the sarcasm a little too straight. Richard II is not a wounded hero, he’s a pampered, self-pitying idiot who receives a well-deserved kick up the backside.

There's an all-star cast this week - Johnny 'Niney? Gone?' Geilgud, Charles 'It's just a jump to the left' Gray (he's in all these bloody things), Mary 'Wheel Turns' Morris, Jeremy 'Can You Keep It Up For A Week?' Bulloch and best of all Jeffrey 'You Have Been Watching' Holland.

This is a play of few parts. John of Gaunt is a bit of a scene-stealer early on - he gets the big speech that Conservative Politicians think is about how this England is so great when in fact it’s saying the complete opposite- and Henry Bolingbrook has a few good lines, but mostly it is Richard II's play. He gets the other big famous speech about the death of kings. You know the one, 'death of kings, la-la-la'.

I'm struggling to find things to say about this rather humdrum play. In Shakey's canon it follows Edward III, but the BBC didn't make that one, and given how unremarkable Edward III's reign was, I hesitate to wonder how exciting that play must be. In setting up an altercation between Richard, Duke of York, and Henry IV, it takes the first steps down the slippery slope that leads to the War of the Roses and Henry VI-1,VI-2,VI-3 and Dick 3. But even that feels somehow perfunctory - Richard makes the beginner’s mistake of writing down his conspiracy and carrying it in his pocket. He might as well have had a t-shirt printed.

Does this play have any modern parallels? An unpopular leader, driven half-mad by their own sense of God-appointed invulnerability, who introduces an unpopular poll tax and then gets deposed by their own side because they have become a liability - and who, upon leaving office, cries tears of self-pity and goes completely bonkers? No, I can't think of any.

As I said, there is some great dialogue in this play, some super, quotable rants, but beyond that I can't see why it is quite so highly regarded. It was banned during Shakespeare's lifetime because Queen Elizabeth thought it might ferment rebellion, but, to be honest, Richard II doesn't even do that very well, because it never properly establishes how awful Richard II is as a king and why he needs to replaced, and also it isn't about rebellion, but about politicians avoiding a revolution by stabbing their leader neatly in the back. Literally, in this case*.

* Another of those awkward 'Will somebody rid me of that annoying person' misunderstandings which have so been the blight of monarchs down the ages.

Weirdly, the little booklet that came with the boxset blurbs up the play thus; 'Who killed the Duke of Gloucester? And why is King Richard II so eager to avoid the question coming to trial by combat?'. That's weird, because not only does the play not answer either of these question, but it doesn't actually pose them either.

But, anyway, there you have it. Richard II. The only Shakespeare play which has been (mis)quoted in both BlackadderII and Coupling, and that's the most interesting thing about it. It's an anticlimactic play about an uneventful moment in history; there just isn't enough story to sustain two and a half hours, and Richard II's character progression is absolutely linear - no twists, no turns, no surprises.

Next up: Measure for Measure

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