A York-based actor has starred in and produced a moving and beautifully crafted short film to honour a medieval king once beloved by this city.
No, not Richard III, but his namesake antecedent, Richard II.
The Sacred King is a lovingly created version of the ‘prison speech’ within William Shakespeare’s history play Richard II, taken from the beginning of Act 5, Scene 5.
Richard is played by Mark Burghagen (BBC, Opera North, York Mystery Plays), who will be known by for those lucky enough to have seen Bronzehead Theatre’s enthralling production of the play at York’s Stained Glass Centre in 2015 and 2016.
Directed by Yvonne Morley (RSC, The Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre), the film sees an incarcerated Richard musing from his prison cell in Pontefract Castle on his fall from power and coming to terms with his own humanity.
Friend of York
Although the more famous, former car park-dwelling King Richard has been making the headlines in recent years and has stirred many a Yorkist heart in these parts, his royal relative Richard II arguably played a more significant role in York’s long and proud history.
It was he who first created the title ‘Duke of York’ and granted the city (which he visited on several occasions) greater freedoms and privileges than any other English monarch.
He made York a county in its own right in 1396 and presented the citizens with a sword of state and mace to be carried during processions; take a look at our coat of arms and you’ll see them still proudly displayed.
Furthermore, when Richard was usurped in 1399 by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the Archbishop of York led a (sadly doomed) rebellion against the new king, resulting in his beheading somewhere near modern day Bishopthorpe Road. Richard had a soft spot for us, and clearly the feeling was mutual.
Attention to detail
One of the great successes of The Sacred King is its attention to detail. For Burhagen, who prior to playing the role for the first time undertook thorough historical research into Richard the man as well as Richard the Shakespearean character, the film is truly a labour of love.
As an actor Burhagen “felt a click” with Richard when first reading Shakespeare’s script and learning about the king’s turbulent and often tragic life.
Although Richard is frequently maligned in history books as a tyrant with inflated ideas of his own majesty, Burhagen takes a more sympathetic approach, believing that Richard was simply “the wrong man at the wrong time, pushed into the role of king too young (he came to the throne aged just 10 in 1377) and pressured by a gang of powerful, ambitious uncles.”
This human frailty, juxtaposed with reminiscent images of Richard in his full royal splendour (filmed in the fittingly regal surroundings of York Minster’s Chapter House), is movingly conveyed by Burghagen throughout.
Indeed, Burhagen and the rest of the production team have done great honour to both The Bard and to Richard in details such as historically accurate period costume, skilfully incorporated music by Shakespeare contemporary John Dowland (performed by two internationally renowned musicians, the tenor John Potter and lutenist Jacob Heringman) and the poignant fact that this famous prison scene is filmed in the very castle where Richard was held and subsequently died.
Furthermore, it is particularly fitting that a Yorkshire-based team has drawn together these diligently assembled strands to tell the story of a man once so beloved by York and its people.