In his recent programme Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, the historian described the iconic bard as the keeper of our national identify, a man responsible for creating the very idea of what England is. With that in mind, it seems only fitting then for the upcoming series of BBC adaptations to be shot, entirely on location, in the English countryside.
Richard II is the first of this four-part series to air: a beautifully filmed two and half hour production, which stars theatre veteran Ben Wishaw as Richard II and Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke. It’s the film’s carefully considered cinematography that sets it apart from past BBC adaptations, giving the adaptation an earthy, natural feel.
Wishaw masterfully plays Richard as a weak and ineffectual king, who appears to entertain homoerotic or bisexual urges, and as the story progresses we see him gradually stripped of his fancy, regal clothes as he slowly loses his power.
The religious symbols are spread thick throughout, with Richard presented to the audience as a Jesus-like fallen prophet, whether the king is sprawled out like Christ on the cross or imprisoned in a cave in nothing but a loin cloth.
However scenes like the one where Richard returns to England, which is filmed on a vast desolate beach, more than make up for a few lazy religious metaphors, adding a sense of depth to the production and helping illustrate Richard’s ever-decreasing power.
Rory Kinnear plays Bolingbroke as a commanding character, but with a subtle, gentler touch to how he’s portrayed in some other productions. Meanwhile, both Patrick Stewart and David Suchet deliver typically fantastic performances, Stewart as John of Gaunt, Suchet as The Duke of York.
Viewers with uncertainties about sitting through a two and a half hour production of Shakespeare shouldn’t be concerned, as the lines are delivered brilliantly by these actors and it’s easy to find yourself immersed in the plot after the first fifteen minutes or so.
Despite the long length of the film, the story has been severely cut back to its very basics. And yet it doesn’t feel disjointed; it’s not at all difficult to follow. Visually it’s spectacular and for the most part it’s an excellent start to the series.