And so finally it arrives, the culmination of the BBC’s Shakespeare fest in The Hollow Crown, the four history plays from Richard II through to Henry V filmed by some of our most exciting directors and bringing together a simply astounding company of actors of the highest (theatrical) pedigree. Having been spoiled by an excellent Richard II from John Heffernan at the Tobacco Factory, the subsequent Eddie Redmayne-starring production at the Donmar suffered a little by comparison, but the sheer star quality on offer here, directed by Rupert Goold no less, meant there was no way I would be missing it.
Leading the cast as the feckless monarch undone by his own grandiloquence, Ben Whishaw imbues Richard with a capricious feyness – his camp is filled with handsome serving boys, juicy figs and a monkey – and a fateful contempt for the affairs of men. This leads to his downfall as his harsh punishment of cousin Henry Bolingbroke and his unlawful seizing of his family’s land and money provokes a righteous retribution from Bolingbroke, who returns from exile supported by many a nobleman and seizes the throne. As the tide turns against him, Whishaw’s king graduates to a heart-wrenching too-late maturity, as the only life he has ever known (he was crowned aged just 10 after all) slips from his grasp. Goold lays on this transformation a little too thickly with an inescapable religious iconography but plays a masterstroke in having the scene of Richard’s return to England played out on a windy beach, his petulant hopelessness washed away with his name in the sand, Whishaw embracing the text exquisitely.
With my hit-rate of plays, it is perhaps not surprising that I had seen most of the cast in something before, but in the end I was gutted to find that I was just two short of a full set – Simon Trinder and Daniel Boyd having eluded me thus far (I’m not counting Clémence Poésy ;-)). Particular highlights in the blink-and–miss-’em awesomeness were David Bradley’s gardener, Finbar Lynch’s brief appearances as the glowering Lord Marshall, Peter de Jersey popping up as Ross and Tom Goodman-Hill as Scroop. Even then, there was Lindsay Duncan’s harsh Duchess of York, Samuel Roukin’s Bagot, Isabella Laughland’s lady-in-waiting, there was pleasure to be found in almost every shot.
Of those given a little more to do, I thought Harry Hadden-Paton and Ferdinand Kingsley were excellent as the hapless lords Bushy and Green; David Morrissey exuded powerful presence as Northumberland, Lucian Msamati made me wish he was on the stage a whole lot more as a raging Bishop of Carlisle. Patrick Stewart’s sonorous tones caressed John of Gaunt’s speech of ‘this sceptr’d isle’ with beautiful delicacy, and David Suchet’s inimitable gravitas as the Duke of York kept things as classy as it gets. I was only the tiniest bit disappointed by Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke, whose rather straight interpretation didn’t quite make enough impact for me.
I’m not wedded to the text enough to be able to comment hugely on the trimming of the text, but I thought the whole thing sped along quite pacily and without any great discernible loss. Adam Cork’s score added evocative layers of atmosphere and the overall tone never shied away from the undeniable brutality of regime change, with gore and beheadings aplenty. At the risk of sounding clichéd, this really is the BBC at its best and you have until 28th July to catch it on the iPlayer – you’d be a fool to do so.