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‘The Hollow Crown’ Opens with ‘Richard II’ – Great Performances

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The Hollow Crown, an artful depiction of the “Henriad”, opened yesterday with Richard II. Over four weeks, PBS brings us the “Great Performances” (aptly named) of the four Shakespearean plays revolving around the reigns of King Henry (IV and V). King Richard is deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, later known as “King Henry IV”.


Ben Wishaw brings to bear the intricate and violent emotions present in his brief portrayals of King Richard II. Complementing him is Rory Kinnear as the future King Henry IV, who deposes him in an almost reluctant matter. The all-star cast wears Shakespeare like a second skin, delivering lines in a language that should be foreign to us with the clarity of our native tongue. Even when I could not watch Richard II with captions, I could understand the actors well.

What I love about Shakespeare is that no matter how many times I read or listen to one of his lines, I find something new in them. Something remarkably timeless, in that the cycles of taking and losing power, in the humility of discovering even kings can break upon the sandbars of a change that is greater than what their godly power can thwart, and in the simplicity and vastness of choices that sometimes don’t feel like choices at all.

The story of Richard II opens with a narrator quoting a passage from the play, introducing us not only to the episode, but to the heart of the miniseries. King Richard II, in all the splendor of his youthful kingship, is called upon to settle a dispute between two of his subjects, one claiming the other to be traitorous to the crown. What follows creates distance where there was loyalty, and hearts torn between what must be done upon the King’s word, and what is right. The pacing of the passages through the camera work, and the actors’ knowledge of when to employ silence, magnifies what we would have experienced in a radio or theater play nicely.

Slowly, the reign of King Richard appears to fall, but the curse he lays—like so often with Shakespeare—sets up the scene for later downfalls in the miniseries. (I should note that the three plays are split between three different directors, and the actors present in Richard II do not carry over into later episodes. However, the remaining episodes features the same key players, with Jeremy Irons taking up the role of the older Henry IV). This shift of directors and actors means that the world is tendered in a different light as the series progresses. Later battle scenes are more reminiscent of a blockbuster film than a play. The change in directorial style and actors threw me at first, watching one episode right after the other, but ultimately it seemed like the production team wanted to craft each episode with the intention of showcasing the work in the best possible way. Now I’m glad that it’s available for purchase, for those of us without TiVo, so it can be savored and enjoyed as Shakespeare is meant to be.

Jeremy Irons matches the gravitas of his role as only he can; his character arc, initiated by Mr. Kinnear in the story of Richard II, had to take quite a bit of skill to carry through, but Mr. Irons takes it on with the effortless grace of ice skaters who make a five minute routine look easy, even when there has been years of practice behind it.

Tom Hiddleston, as Prince Hal and the future Henry V, also takes on quite a challenge as he is featured in the remaining three episodes, charting the course of young King Henry V as he grows from a playful, mischievous youth to a warrior king. He holds his own among such actors as Mr. Irons and Simon Russell Beale, and he navigates the scenes of quiet solemnity and lighthearted banter with a deft hand.

Mr. Goold, as a co-adapter and director of Richard II, plays with the balance between theater and film, employing camerawork such as wide and close angles, focus that blends and fades—sometimes it was distracting because the actor usually in the scene was so captivating that I would have been content to stare at them for the five minutes they gave their monologue, but I could appreciate Mr. Goold’s final result. He plays with the inherent metaphors, as well, capturing Richard’s final hours with the stark cruelty of his martyrdom, and the almost painful opulence of his reign.

An award-winning series, The Hollow Crown is a riveting, beautiful homage to the Bard, and I can see why this miniseries was originally created as part of the Olympics celebration of British culture.

Friday, September 20, 2013, at KOCE, 9 p.m. Richard II.

If you miss the episode, you can also purchase the series on Amazon Instant video. It is available on DVD, in Regions 1, 2 & 4.

For more information, please visit PBS.

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com
  • bliffle

    I watched the first episode at 3AM and was riveted by it! Absolutely marvelous! Don’t miss this series.

    I watched with the Closed Captions (CC) on because I was afraid of missing some of the language. The speech was sufficiently clear, but anyone who’s watched an English language film and wondered if that’s the same English language you learned in school might appreciate the help.

    Anyway, it was great and I look forward to subsequent episodes.