Four Plantagenet Kings, Four Ways to Ruin a Country

A-PlantagenetsFour Plantagenet Kings, Four Ways to Ruin a Country

   The Athena Learning DVD set titled “Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, The Plantagenets” is excellently done. However, of the twelve Plantagenet Kings of England, this series deals only with Henry II, Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II. Perhaps there will be a second series to pick up the other reigns; but what we have here is of great interest.

With a good narration by historian Dan Jones, the events are acted out by a cast that speaks only French (as did the English nobility at the time), and the insanity of the last three kings is shown perfectly in the actors’ faces.

The running theme is that personal power was more important than running the country. Henry II was not mad but acted so in his last years concerning which son would succeed him. Edward II and Richard II thought more of their friends/lovers than of running the country. Richard even passed a sort of Patriot Act, calling for the death penalty for anyone who contradicted him in any way!

All this makes fascinating viewing; and one can read up on the kings this series omits. Maybe the efficient kings did not provide such interesting stories as did the weak ones. Each of four episodes runs 47 minutes and there are subtitles.

Richard II

Richard II” Gets a No-nonsense ProductionA-SH-Richard II RSC

I vowed never to watch any Shakespeare with David Tennant after he butchered the poetry of “Hamlet” in the 2009 telecast. Then I saw only the cover of the Opus Arte DVD release of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Richard II”; and there he was, dressed in white running shoes and some casual modern garb, sitting on a throne. I groaned and expected the worst.

What I got was possibly the best “Richard II” on video, shot during a performance at Stratford-on-Avon in 2013! The text is loudly and clearly spoken. Except for speaking his lines too quickly, Tennant respects the poetry of the text—and Richard’s character is that of a poet miscast as a king—and gives a creditable performance.

Others in the cast include Emma Hamilton (Queen), Michael Pennington (John of Gaunt), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke, later Henry IV), and Oliver Ford Davies (York). Jane Lapotaire does a star turn as the Duchess of Gloucester in the first scene, while the rest of the cast keeps up the pace in what is after all a very talky play.

My only disappointment is Lindsay, who gives no subtlety to his Bolingbroke. There should come a point at which the audience knows whether he came back from exile only to reclaim what Richard had stolen from him or he was definitely planning to seize the crown from the start. But when I direct the play myself, I will make it clear. Perhaps in this production Director Gregory Doran did not choose to do so.

The stage is a single set, consisting of a balcony and dimly colored backdrops that do not change from scene to scene. (Nor did it in Shakespeare’s time, so my comment is not negative.) The costumes in the first two scenes are quite colorful; but from then on the men are dressed in the dullest colors, designed perhaps to contrast with Richard’s Christlike white garment.

Putting all this aside, the lines are beautifully read, sometimes shouted. Moreover, this is one of the very few Shakespeare videos that is a staged production and that has subtitles! At last.

A very long pause in a scene with Richard and his cousin Aumerle (Oliver Rix) leading to up a kiss is utterly unnecessary or at least given too much stage time. And an interesting change is making Richard’s killer in the penultimate scene not Exton but Aumerle. This is why the tiny scene (V. iv) in which a certain Exton says he will kill Richard is omitted.  Other than that, the text is just about complete.

The two scenes Shakespeare intended to be funny—the throwing of glove after glove onto the ground as challenges (IV, i) and the pleading of Aumerle’s parents that King Henry should and should not kill their son (V, iii)—get the laughs they usually do.

The tracking is very helpful: each new scene gets its own track. This increases the educational value of this disc considerably. The running time is 165 minutes and there is a short interview with Tennant and a commentary. The latter is poorly done, because the sound track of the film is too loud and it is hard to hear what the director is saying. Didn’t any sound engineer or quality control person spot this?

All in all, this is still a grand “Richard II” and not to be missed.

Note.  The “Richard II” seen as part of the Complete Shakespeare series on Public Television and still available on DVDs has an excellent Richard in Derek Jacobi but it does have some cuts. An older production on VHS only with Michael Pennington in the lead role is hard to get and not worth it. Pennington is far too old for the role and almost all the scenes in which he does not appear are cut! There are one or two other videos which I have not seen.

Nevertheless, I will still recommend this Opus Arte disc as the one to have.