This week celebrates the premiere of The Hollow Crown, a four-part miniseries collectively adapting four of Shakespeare's history plays. The miniseries, which airs on PBS as part of the network’s Great Performances series (Friday, 9pm), begins first with Richard II before following through with, Henry IV, Parts I & II, and Henry V for four consecutive weeks. Being a lavish and quite epic production, it boasts just such an impressive cast; in this week's premiere Ben Whishaw plays the titular King Richard while Patrick Stewart and David Suchet take on the roles of the king's uncles, the dukes of Lancaster and York, respectively. Rory Kinnear plays the king's cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and the future King Henry IV. Rounding out the cast are David Morrissey, James Purefoy, Clémence Poésy, Tom Goodman-Hill, and Tom Hughes. Together they are directed in the adaptation by Rupert Goold.
Full of the careful emotion and rich language of Shakespeare’s work, Richard II encompasses the magnitude of the Bard’s world and provides a genuinely mesmeric retelling. Whether you’re a dedicated enthusiast of Shakespeare’s work or merely quietly curious, this adaptation is bound to grasp your attention for its full two and a half hours without releasing it for a moment. The costuming is absolutely gorgeous and Goold’s direction results in a visually beautiful film, each scene handled with creative artistry and grace. Each cast member is commanding in their own way, all exercising a certain fluidity and natural ease with the complexities of Shakespeare’s language. Ben Whishaw has long been one of my favorite actors, and here I think he proves himself as one of the major talents of his generation. His portrayal of Richard II, which won him a BAFTA, is straightforward and bold, illustrating Shakespeare’s characterization of the monarch as haughty and primarily self-interested. Stewart and Suchet both excel, as would be expected, and Rory Kinnear's performance is fantastically gripping.
If you're not familiar with Shakespeare's play, it tells the story of the last two years of Richard II's life and reign. Called to act as an intermediary, Richard must settle a dispute between his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Thomas Mowbray. Accusing each other of treason, the men submit to a duel against the wishes of the king. Richard, however, stops the duel before blood can be shed and exiles both men from the country. Bolingbroke's father, the Duke of Lancaster, is broken-hearted by his son's six-year banishment and soon passes away. Upon Lancaster's death, Richard seizes the duke's money, land and goods, denying the exiled Bolingbroke his rightful inheritance. While Richard is at war with the rebels in Ireland, Bolingbroke devises a return to England with the help of his uncle, the Duke of York, where he will not only take back his inheritance, but depose Richard and claim the throne as well.
I love seeing Shakespeare's work adapted purely because it offers so many diverse possibilities for interpretation. In Richard II, I feel like the play has been given new, exciting life all the while paying tremendous respect to the original text. It flows beautifully through what could have been a heaviness of scale, instead maintaining itself as a dependably entertaining and resplendent adaptation. It's definitely not one for fans of Shakespeare to miss.
Great Performances: The Hollow Crown premieres nationwide with Richard II on Friday, September 20 at 9pm EST on PBS. For more details and to check your local listings visit PBS.org.
Photos © Nick Briggs