The Wars of the Roses, the final section of the BBC’s The Holllow Crown season is beautifully done. There are some fine performances from a great cast that you will never see together on stage and some well judged and beautiful cinematography. On the whole it works like a dream- I even forgive the adaptor Dominic Cooke for cutting Jack Cade’s rebellion. I watched the whole lot in a single day which speaks for itself. This is much the best way to see the plays- Henry VI edited down into two parts followed by Richard III- as it allows you to see the full sweep of the story, especially that of two of the main characters, Margaret of Anjou and Richard III himself. A fearsome warrior Queen who becomes the traumatised wreck of her former self and a young man, already emotionally damaged by his physical disability, who sees his family destroyed and becomes a vengeful psychopath caring only for himself. It was the Henry VI plays that established Shakespeare’s reputation- blood and thunder has always been popular.
The first half of Henry VI is dominated by two powerful aristocratic courtiers, Somerset and Plantagenet, who are frustrated by King Henry’s otherworldly inability to do what is required of him as king. He is kind but weak, not what you want at a time of looming civil war, an easy target for ambitious, rich men on the make. Ben Miles is absolutely mesmerising as Somerset. You can see exactly what he is thinking as he works out how to find a chance to wield power through his relationship with Queen Margaret and it is chilling. Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet- the head of the family whose claim to the throne threatens the King most- is a nice contrast to Somerset, all fire and action. He makes the most of great lines like the one where Joan of Arc shows him Talbot’s body. “Oh, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned that iron rage might shoot them in your faces”.
Sophie Okonedo is perfect casting for Queen Margaret. It is one of the great parts in Shakespeare if you have the chance to play it across all three plays and she has every bit of the fire and venom that it needs.
The second part of Henry VI (mostly from part three) is action packed and there is more blood as the Plantagenet family rise against Henry and he ends up all but defeated, brokering a deal to stay on the throne for his lifetime and shamefully disinheriting his son. It seems like they have won, but there is a cancer hidden in the heart of their family- Richard of Gloucester- who will destroy their victory for his own personal gain. As Edward settles into his reign we know this all too well even if he doesn’t. Benedict Cumberbatch is fascinating to watch as he works away on the edges of scenes, with relatively few lines, showing everything that we need to know. By the end of the play he has done what his father stopped short of and killed an anointed king. There is nothing he will not do.
Richard III is a great play. It works like a modern thriller- think House of Cards- when it is on stage and it needs little editing. It belongs on stage- the device of allowing Richard to let the audience into the secrets of his villainy while fooling those around him is pure theatre, thrilling and sometimes very funny. For me this play is never going to work as well on screen as it does on stage when it is done to full effect but my goodness Benedict Cumberbatch gives it his best shot, talking to the camera, absolutely embracing Richard’s wickedness without any apology, and producing a full on, bravura performance. I did miss some of the humour that I know is there- the wooing of Lady Anne and the scene where “pious” Richard “reluctantly” agrees to be king can be laced with black comedy- but I think that this was perhaps because something about the events being filmed rather than staged made what we were watching too real to laugh at. This play really is a collusion between Richard and the audience, it is him saying to us look how clever I am, and you need to have that direct contact with a man on stage to really get the full effect. I have also seen the relationship between Buckingham and Richard come across more strongly. We should know immediately that when Richard says to him “I am not in the giving mood” he is making a huge mistake that will lead to his downfall. He has not done his villainy alone and if Buckingham’s contribution is not acknowledged and rewarded as promised Richard will be taken down. This is his only real collaborative relationship in the play and he has not grasped its importance to his future.
I think that because Richard III is so fast moving and claustrophobic I was less tolerant of the opening out that inevitably comes when it is directed for cinema. I really didn’t want the ending to be undercut by showing Queen Margaret wandering around the battlefield for example. Having said that these three plays on film, along with the rest of The Hollow Crown are a fine, lasting achievement and I’m glad to have had the chance to see them.