Richard 11 and This England

Shakespeare’s plays (like opera) rarely work on the small screen. Even in the cinema they tend to be heavy-handed with performances played at the same level as on stage. The production of Richard 11  on Saturday night (BBC2) was a shining, magnificent exception. On every level – performances, costumes, direction, decor, lighting, editing, verse speaking – the whole endeavour bristled with a consistency of style and content that I have never seen matched. Derek Jacobi’s examination of the play which followed used excerpts from earlier TV productions including brief glimpses of Ian McKellen’s Richard 11 from 1970 (my first job in the theatre as a humble ASM) and Jacobi’s own later version: how mannered, how stagey, how fake they looked (though not as mannered, stagey and fake  as the two student? actors rehearsing Richard and Bolingbroke at the Globe for Jacobi’s programme – time to examine one’s shoe laces).

Richard 11 is relatively early in the canon and the only one which is entirely in verse. What amazed me about Rupert Goold’s production (apart from not quite believing this could be his first foray into television) was that lines written to be projected to the back of the Globe Theatre can work just as well (better?) when spoken sotto voce, and inflected with just as much (or more) colour and variety with the help of a microphone. The whole of the Deposition Scene was superbly done, but the final exchanges between Richard and Henry in extreme close-up were electrifying. They might have been written yesterday. Ben Wishaw, looking and dressed very like the portrait of Richard in Westminster Abbey, pitched it at just the right level between preening, effete authority and bewildered, spoilt playboy: Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke was horribly plausible, a quietly viscious political animal quite as bad, in his own way, as Richard. Amongst the starry and not-so-starry cast, only the anachronism of a black-skinned Bishop of Carlisle slightly jarred: it looked like tokenism.

One of the finest scenes was Sir Patrick Stewart, late of the Starship Enterprise, giving his John of Gaunt. Though teetering near the edge of theatricality (but, to be clear, entirely avoiding it), his famous monologue was as moving as I have ever heard it, riven with hidden depth.

By the strangest coincidence, an email two days later from a record company gave news of a new recording of Parry’s music including his rarely-performed anthem England. Now I happen to know this rarity rather well having discovered an old 78 rpm recording of it in the BBC Gram Library (as was) when making The Shellac Show, my series of radio programmes for Radio 3 back in the 1990s. The words Parry set were adapted from John of Gaunt’s speech by Sir Esme Howard KCB (so says the vocal part) – and a very splendid unison anthem it is too. My choir and I have performed it every year for the last eight years on St George’s Day. I wonder if this new recording (from Chandos) will raise its profile and put it up there with Land of Hope & Glory and Jerusalem?

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