let us tell sad stories of the death of kings

The BBC are currently doing a “OMG SHAKESPEARE” season which is turning out to be ridiculously exciting.

There are a bunch of the expected documentaries about the unimaginable GENIOOS and ENGLISHNESS of Shakespeare, which are about as irritating as you’d imagine. There’s a lot of Simon Schama sitting in random places loosely associated with the life of the cultural construct we call Shakespeare, verbally orgasming over the notion of this aforementioned cultural construct learning Latin grammar and being inspired by an abiding love of words (cut to: The History Boys, words, always in that tone of reverence…)

I gave up after the first fifteen minutes. At least partially because it was just too like the Dead Ringers parody and I couldn’t take it even remotely seriously.

However, last night H and I watched the Richard II dramatisation and it was … oh exquisite. Not entirely coherent but I know which I’d rather. It is full of awesome people being awesome (Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, Poirot as the Duke of York, James Purfoy as Mowbry, Lindsay Duncan as Ms the Duke of York and I shall came onto the radiance of Ben Whishaw in a moment) and, admittedly, they have taken out a bunch of words to make way for scenes of people jousting or standing on the beach but … hell … it was wonderful to watch. They symbolic hammer had been applied with great enthusiasm and not much discrimination – I lost track of crucified Jesuses (Jesusi?) and waves washing away names writ on sand (oh d’you SEE) and weird camera angles of the (hollow) crown until it felt more like The One Ring.

And H and I got into a big argument afterwards about what it all MEANT, because most of the lost words seemed to belong to Bollingbroke so he mainly came across as A Man With a Beard, rather than the politician to oppose Richard’s divinity. And, as a consequence of the symbolic mashup, it was slightly hard to tell what they were trying to say – I think they were going straight down the line for “crappy monarch achieves some glimmer of true majesty in adversity” whereas H’s take was “wet gay cries a lot.”

Regardless, there are not enough words in the universe to encompass my profound adoration for Ben Whishaw. And perhaps part of the reason the whole thing worked better for me than it did for H was that I am always mesmerised by Whishaw. There’s a combination of restless energy, astonishing grace and profound vulnerability to him that I find deeply deeply … ahem yes. Of course, having those qualities it seems he is doomed to play always the fragile and the broken.  I think he’s been Keats, Sebastian Flyte, and now Richard II. But also he does wonderful things with the language – he speaks it so naturally, conveying both clarity and depth.

Also the scene at the centre of Richard II where he surrenders his crown to Bollingbroke was extraordinary. (H: “oh God, he’s crying again.”). And it was totally not the thing to take away from it but there’s a moment when he falls to the floor at Bollingbroke’s feet and the crown (the HOLLOW CROWN, d’you see!) rolls from his outstretched fingers … and I found it – inadvertently – searingly erotic. Symbolic Mallet aside, I think they did quite well in juxtaposing ideas of kingship and mortality, the physical body and the body body politic, although perhaps that’s just because of Whishaw’s own luminous physicality. And I know watching the mortal surrender the divine is not for, err, getting your rocks off. But it really was the ultimate taboo.


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