Monday, November 21, 2011

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Richard II (BBC, 1978)

The Play: Richard II.
Directed by: David Giles, for the notorious BBC Series, 1978.

Genre & Setting: Richard II is one of the history plays, set in the fun-loving frolic of English dynastic politics leading up to the War of the Roses.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: We start with King Richard II trying to mediate between a couple of hothead nobles, Bolingbroke and Mawbray, who are robustly accusing each other of treason. “You’re a traitor!” “No, you’re a traitor!” “No, YOU’re a traitor!” “Am not!” “Am so!” The King fails to reconcile them, the first of a number of important failures, and agrees to let them duel it out.

Next, we see the dueling ground, and about three hours is spent reciting all of the proper formulae for a proper, legally-binding fight to the death. Except, just at the last moment Richard interrupts the proceedings with a Solomonic decree that instead of dueling, the parties must go into exile. By “Solomonic,” however, I don’t mean “wise” but “intolerable to all involved parties.” It’s not immediately obvious, but King Rick has already screwed himself royally (as we used to say in HomeTown5000).

John of Gaunt, who has been one of the leading nobles of England for the past several decades, warns Richard that he is not living up to the expectations of his job description and then keels over. Richard uses the pretext of treason to confiscate all of Gaunt’s estate, which he uses to fund a military expedition to Ireland.

While King Rick is swashbuckling in Ireland, his nobles – furious about the Gaunt business and about the generally shoddy state of royal administration – bring Bolingbroke (Gaunt’s son) home from exile and begin tinkering with the idea of regime change. When Richard returns, he finds that he has about three friends left in the world and will be forced to abdicate. There follows much dialog and speechifying on the nature of kingship: Richard feels that the divine prerogative of hereditary succession is sacred and inviolable, but then he would, wouldn’t he. Others, although a little uncomfortable about what God might be thinking about all of this, wonder if there might oughtn’t be a results-based aspect to a king’s tenure.

With Bolingbroke now on the throne as Henry IV, old King Richard is stashed away in prison. A plot emerges to reinstate him; we see this as an awful family drama in which one of the conspirators’ fathers pleads with Henry to execute his son as a traitor, while the conspirator’s mom pleads for her boy’s life. The upshot, of course, is that it’s dangerous to have Richard hanging around in mothballs, and the end of the play will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of monarchical succession struggles.

The Adaptation: This is one of the best of the BBC series adaptations I’ve seen. This is to say, although it had pre-Star Trek effects, sets, and editing (despite being made ten years after Star Trek), it was however very effectively acted and performed. I never had any trouble figuring out what was going on, assuming that the above synopsis is not riddled with errors.

Clocks In At: About two and a half hours.

Pros: As a play, its strength is some mild but sincere contemplation of the nature of leadership. There’s a nice scene that didn’t make the synopsis up there where the palace gardeners talk about the nature of gardening in a conversation that is 100% allegorical: it’s all about the nature of governance.

It was interesting that this is a serious Shakespeare play with no comic relief bits – not a single punning yokel in sight. Or, if there were comic relief bits, they were played as serious in this adaptation (I have this theory that many of the traditionally “comic” bits of Shakespeare plays could be equally if not more effective if staged as sincere.) With no disrespect to the comic relief aspect of Shakespeare, it was nice to watch a play that kept to its dominant key all the way through.

Cons: Not a whole ton actually happens in Richard II. There’s a lot of meditating and arguing, but watching (for instance) a guy agonizing about whether to semi-voluntarily abdicate the kingship – it’s a choice between two flavors of humiliation, with important ramifications for the future of the country – is not the most gripping of entertainments. There is hardly any violence, and there’s no sex at all.

Prognosis: I wonder if this is a play where the value added of seeing it performed over reading off the page is unusually low.

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