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Richard II On Screen

TV adaptations of Shakespeare's verse tragedy

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One of Shakespeare's first great tragedies, Richard II is thought to have been written circa 1595, placing it between the earlier Henry VI/Richard III cycle and the subsequent Henry IV/Henry V one. Uniquely in Shakespeare's stage output, it is written entirely in verse, making it a more stylised and ritualistic piece than the other history plays, as much about the philosophical question of what makes a king as a dramatisation of the real-life events concerning Richard's replacement by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV). The lack of large-scale set-pieces and an overwhelming concentration on psychological detail makes Richard II particularly well suited to the intimacy of the small screen, and it has duly had several television adaptations.

The first of these was broadcast by the BBC in October 1950 in a version directed by Royston Morley and starring Alan Wheatley (Richard), Clement McCallin (Bolingbroke), Henry Oscar (John of Gaunt), Arthur Wontner (Duke of York) and Joy Shelton (Queen Isabella). Like all Shakespeare television adaptations of the time, it was broadcast live and does not appear to have been recorded.

The oldest surviving television version of Richard II is made up by the first two parts of the BBC's ambitious cycle of the history plays, An Age of Kings, 'The Hollow Crown' (tx. 28/4/1960) and 'The Deposing of a King' (tx. 12/5/1960). Effectively a two-hour truncation of the play, its cuts (all scenes featuring the Duchesses of Gloucester and York, the Aumerle-as-traitor subplot) served to focus attention on the king himself. David William gives an appropriately effete performance in the title role, less nuanced than Derek Jacobi (see below) but rising to the right level of pathos where necessary. Supporting actors include Edgar Wreford (John of Gaunt), Tom Fleming (Bolingbroke) and a young Sean Connery (Harry Percy). Originally broadcast live, the whole series has been preserved via telerecording.

The second TV adaptation (BBC, tx. 10/12/1978) was for the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, and featured one of its most distinguished casts, with a virtuoso Derek Jacobi in the title role, John Gielgud as John of Gaunt, Jon Finch (Roman Polanski's Macbeth) as Bolingbroke and Charles Gray and Wendy Hiller as the Duke and Duchess of York. Directed by David Giles, who would also helm many of the BBC cycle's other history plays (Henry IV and V, King John), it was a studio-bound production that emphasised the formal aspects of the play and presented the text with minimal cuts. It was accompanied by a short introduction for the Shakespeare in Perspective series, broadcast the same evening and presented by the historian Paul Johnson.

There have been three other television versions of Richard II, all sourced from acclaimed stage productions. The Tragedy of King Richard II (BBC, tx. 30/7/1970) was based on Richard Cottrell's Prospect Theatre Company's production, and starred Ian McKellen and Timothy West. Deborah Warner's groundbreaking National Theatre production of 1995, with the actress Fiona Shaw in the title role, was broadcast on BBC2 on 22 March 1997, while a Globe Theatre production starring Mark Rylance was broadcast on BBC4 on 7 September 2003, alongside a commentary by Matt Woolf and a tour of the theatre.

The real-life Richard II was one of a number of medieval kings whose reputation was reassessed - in his case, for the better - in Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC, 2004).

Michael Brooke

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Richard II (1978)

BBC Shakespeare adaptation with Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud

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