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Film-makers choices in adapting Richard II

The start of a film version of a Shakespeare play offers a pretty good clue to the nature of the adaptation. So how, for instance, does Richard II begin? In one sense it begins like this:



Nobles and attendants.

(Q1, 1597, A2r)

Which is perhaps not too radically different from beginning like this:

Actus Primus, Scæna Prima

Enter King Richard, John of Gaunt, with other Nobles and Attendants.

(F1, 1623, b6r)

On stage, any number of events can mark the start. I cannot help but think particularly of Sam West as Richard (RSC, The Other Place, 2000, directed by Stephen Pimlott) sitting on the coffin that, at the production’s end would hold his body, reading a speech (usually from the prison scene) before deciding whether to turn, mount the stairs to the throne, commit to the evening’s performance and to being King, and, when he had committed, the house lights cut out and the stage lights crashed on. Or of Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1973, directed by John Barton), leading lines of actors onto the stage, summoned by a figure dressed as Shakespeare and, as they held aloft between them a crown and a mask, he nodded at the one who would play Richard that night and the actors began to dress for the performance. These two stage productions are seared into my memory so that I cannot read or think about the play without their coming to mind. Neither begins as Q1 begins. Each defines its approach through these pre-dialogue moments. Each uses actors and, in Pimlott’s case, simple and necessary props to create that definition.

And on screen? It might begin with a slow tracking shot across a wooden ceiling in an astonishing medieval building, down across a beautiful crucifix and then a tapestry and finally to a throne with Richard in it, impassive, holding orb and scepter, before a rapid full reverse to a shot of dozens of courtiers looking back at him. The opening shot lasts 50 seconds, while a voice-over, Richard’s we might assume, close-miked and intimate, almost whispering, certainly not located in the acoustic of the vast space we are looking at, speaks lines that, for those who do not know the play, will prove to come from much later on:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings –
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed –
All murdered. (3.2.145, 147, 155-60)

If we know the play very well, we might note that the speech has been cut, sixteen lines down to eight, and that the third line has been truncated by removing “For God’s sake,” leaving this wondrous line of eight monosyllables and one dissyllable oddly short of three of them. This is the opening of Richard II as a film for television, directed by Rupert Goold, made as part of The Hollow Crown, four films covering the second tetralogy, released in 2012.

‘9’ by Kirill Proskurin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Or it might begin with a strong, perhaps even startling, overhead shot, looking straight down at a woman, hunched down beside a draped coffin, her arm stretched out over it, clearly in grief. Before the camera moves back and down, we hear the sound of feet, and people start to come into shot, taking up formal positions behind and beside the coffin, while projections on to the curtains of thin chains behind them create the image of a grand medieval interior but which the foreground revealed as a thrust stage with audience members either side of it. The shot lasts a long 80 seconds, with no dialogue, only the sound of three angelic women’s voices, accompanied by a solo trumpet, the singers seen in the gallery. Finally it cuts to a medium shot of the two old men, one either side of the coffin, one in tears, grief-stricken, the other patting the mourning woman’s arm comfortingly. This is the opening of Richard II as a live relay of the RSC’s 2013 production by Gregory Doran, transmitted to cinemas on 13 November 2013, a month into the production’s run, and subsequently released as a DVD.

Two very different and equally arresting openings. One uses a chunk of text to define the production’s sense of the key moment, visual imagery to define historical moment, the presence of the crucifix to foreshadow its interest in Richard as Christ or as Saint Sebastian, and an edit and the locational distance to mark Richard’s separation from his court. The other makes us overwhelmingly aware of grief, of mystery (who is in the coffin?), of a space at once ecclesiastical and political (actually evoking Westminster Hall), and also a space that is a stage in a theatre with an audience present, not a location shoot for a film. Both openings make us want to watch and listen and consider and think. Two invitations to engage with Shakespeare on screen.

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