Episode One of An Age Of Kings adapts the first half of Richard II. David William is Richard and he gives a decent performance in this first episode, as we see him move from regal majesty to arrogant petulance. His performance isn’t quite perfect though – and he’s certainly better in the second episode – although his final scene here, as he laments his misfortunes, is a definite highlight.
For God’s sake, 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 poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp
The play opens with Bolingbroke (Tom Fleming) and Mowbray (Noel Johnson) who request an audience with the King to seek his advice in settling their dispute (Bolingbroke alleges that Mowbray has squandered monies which should have been spent on the Kings’ soldiers). The two men find it impossible to resolve their differences, so a trial of arms seems to be the only course of action. But just before the duel commences, Richard announces a different plan – banishment from the realms of England. Mowbray is to be banished for life, whilst Bolingbroke is to leave the shores of England for ten years (later reduced by the King to six).
Both Fleming and Johnson are impressive in these early scenes, although the limitations of live television and the somewhat cumbersome nature of the cameras does become apparent since it’s several minutes before a camera is able to manoeuvre sufficiently to allow us a decent shot of Johnson (prior to this he’s only seen from the side).
Bolingbroke’s father, the Duke of Gaunt (Edgar Wreford) takes this news particularly badly and quickly sickens. And it’s Richard’s decision, upon Gaunt’s death, to sieze his lands and money which sets in motion the chain of events which seal Richard’s fate.
Before that though, Gaunt delivers one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches (and it’s very well performed by Wreford). Part of it is quite famous –
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
What isn’t so well known is that the speech isn’t actually painting an idealised and romantic view of England, since Gaunt carries on to express his dismay at how the country is suffering under the reign of Richard.
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
Also impressive in this episode is Geoffrey Bayldon as the Duke of York (who skillfully manages to smooth over a line fluff – as this is live television there will be more to come over the following weeks). There’s also a certain pleasure in watching the likes of George A. Cooper (an actor who went on to have a long and varied career on television and is probably best known for playing the grumpy caretaker in Grange Hill) rubbing sholdiers with Sean Connery. Connery (like Julian Glover) only has a few lines here, but we’ll hear a lot more from both of them in forthcoming installments. Also impressive in a small role is Frank Windsor as the Bishop of Carlisle.
Act 1 Scene 2 (the Duke of Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester at the Duke of Lancaster’s palace) is excised from the adaptation. This helps to speed up the play in the early stages as well as keeping the focus on Bolingbroke and Mowbray.
Next up – Episode Two – The Deposing of a King.