The Beeb has been broadcasting a lot of Shakespeare at the moment. It repeated one of its great achievements, Vivat Rex, and in the last week has shown Julius Caesar and Richard II, the first play in The Hollow Crown series, which will follow with Henry IV Parts 1 and II and Henry V.
Julius Caesar is a televised version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production. Some of it worked well, but the televised theatre medium sets limitations, especially when it came to the final battle scenes, which are seven guys dispersing themselves through what looked like the ablutions block of a disused factory.
It has an all-black cast and is set in a modern African state. This makes sense, a play about a coup d'etat set in that continent of coups. It also gives some local colour e.g. the women's cloth head-dresses and the men changing from white shirts or tunics to ceremonial robes for the assassination, so when Octavius Caeasar (Ivanno Jeremiah) appears in modern battle-dress you take one look at his ironed shirt and know that cool, self-possessed youth is going to come out on top Cinna the poet is lynched by necklacing and the soothsayer is daubed in white ash. Also, the verse delivered with African stresses and full utterance is lovely to listen to and makes the grand rhetoric seem like natural speech.
The televised play is billed as "a fast-moving thriller. A vivid story about a struggle for democracy, Julius Caesar is also a love story between two men united by an explosive act of political violence " Caesar (Jeffery Kissoon) ageing and fattening on the arrogance of his power is excellent and some scenes - the conspirators gathering on a stormy night, the actual assassination on an escalator, Mark Antony's speech to the crowd - do in fact thrill. But much of the play is Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Cassius (Cyril Nri) in discussion and as they are not clearly characterised, they tend to blur into each other. Also - and it's a problem with the play itself - Brutus, supposedly the noblest Roman, is a bad modern hero because he is always wrong. Brutus over-rules Cassius in advancing to Phillippi, where their forces are defeated, and in allowing Mark Antony not only to live after the assassination but to make a speech at Caesar's funeral, which Antony of course uses to pull the rug from under the conspirators' feet. Brutus is most sympathetic in his gentle manner to his slave Lucius, a nice boy, touchingly played by Simon Manyonda as one of the youthful followers being caught up in events way beyond their understanding, let alone control.
From the first sight of him flashing his gorgeous teeth, Mark Antony (Ray Fearon) steals the play as the character he plays stole the revolution. Handsome, charismatic, part playboy, part PR man collecting industry awards he is the portrait of a successful politician - a devious and ruthless opportunist. He bides his time by shaking the assassins' bloody hands and he then seizes the moment with a literal vengeance through his Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech. He's a great orator - and the thrust of his speech springs from a real emotion - he does believe that Caesar's murder was an outrage and that the murderers should be punished. Ruthless opportunist he is, but not a hypocrite. Antony dwarfs Brutus as the winner through realpolitik will always dwarf the losing idealist.
The politics of the play are universal - a tyrant overthrown, a would-be revolution that goes wrong and then clever manipulators grabbing power and killing off the opposition.
Another sort of politics features in Richard II - that of how the powerful, unaware of the difference between respect, fear and flattery, can be deposed. Richard spends his time enjoying his own divine right and not enough time holding on to it.
Richard II is directed by Rupert Goold specifically for television and uses small-scale spectacle and slanting camera angles, often highly effectively and beautifully e.g. jousting scene with the jousters and their horses in wonderful armour. There are sumptuous backgrounds of carved and painted interiors and bleached, silvery wood. In a play which is full of love for England Bolingbroke returns from exile to walk through flowery meadows or along a track among bracken, and Richard stands on the only litter-free, sandy beach in the whole of these islands (it looked like the south coast - how did they manage to clear it of dog-walkers?)
It is highly visual. At his end a bearded Richard echoes an IRA hunger striker in his cell and then Saint Sebastian shot full of arrows. Like Marlowe's Edward II Richard is insufferable as the theatrical king, and most pitiable and dignified when brought low to simple suffering, realising that he has been a man of straw with a crown.
It has often been noted that in democratic societies only big name entertainers like Madonna or Mariah Carey dare to come on these days like royalty - a president or prime minister cannot demand that their hotel-suite be decorated with white on white brocade. So Richard Goold directed Ben Whishaw to play Richard as a Michael Jackson figure, a man who lives in a fantasy world with an entourage of grasping hangers on.
This fey Richard II crashes against the stolid Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear). Bolingbroke believes in the prerogative of kings, and he represents the actuality of power as against its ceremonies and decorations. So Bolingbroke appears as neither cruel nor unfeeling, but with a heavy face and stance asserts his rights to the end, while the grimmer colder Northumberland, (a menacing David Morrissey) acts as his instrument. This is kingship - not the fine cloth tents and banners, not the jewelled crown but the heads of the defeated rolling on the floor. Quite magnificent.
I have some quibbles. The lines that show Richard exercising his power badly through his irresponsible and greedy underlings are mostly cut Also, when Patrick Stewart's John of Gaunt delivers the precious gem set in a silver sea speech it doesn't need music as an accompaniment. The words, the delivery and Patrick Stewart's worn out face are enough.
However it's marvellous television. I'm really looking forward to the next play in the series, Henry IV Part 1.
Richard ends starved and abused in a cell, musing on the hollowness of power. "I wasted time and now doth time waste me". There is no evidence that recently deposed tyrants e.g. Ghadaffi and Saddam Hussein philosophised that way in their final hours. A modern western politician's fall is not so bloody. But the spectacle of a fall from power jolts the heart. At the end of Margaret, the play about Thatcher's fall, Margaret Thatcher goes to her office and finds the lock have been changed. In an organisation I worked there was a boardroom coup and the locks were changed on the front door against the ousted managing director. Then he successfully staged a counter coup. That was drama and fear and some excitement for us underlings.
Here's a piece about Harold MacMillan's famous Cabinet reshuffle in 1962, the one known as The Night of the Long Knives. Selwyn Lloyd, the Chancellor, got the boot. His private secretary was Jonathan Aitken, who in Richard II's style of appointment, owed his job to being Lloyd's godson.
After the meeting with MacMillan "the Chancellor returned a broken man, pleading with his godson to keep him company. ''What he really wanted to do,’’ recalls Aitken, ''was let his hair down and have a glass or two of whisky when his heart was opening up with worries of a personal kind. He had no money apart from his ministerial salary. In the middle of [his] stream of consciousness the doorbell rang and it was a GPO engineer to remove the scrambler telephone secure line. I remember [thinking] how quickly power fades.’’
At least he wasn't locked up in in Pomfret Castle. The rise and fall - it's a story we never get sick of, be it kings, politicians or contestants in X-Factor.