The Wars of the Roses. The final three parts of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

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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.

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Richard II. William Shakespeare. (Part of the 2012 BBC series The Hollow Crown.)

Ben Whishaw as Richard II. BBC image.

Richard II is a play which I know pretty well. I have studied it and it was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw on stage. I have seen it four times on stage altogether over the years and loved Derek Jacobi in the previous BBC version. Richard himself is a great part and none of my four stage Richards, Ian Richardson, Michael Pennington, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes were a disappointment. I can still remember how wonderfully Ian Richardson played the deposition scene, and how moving Ralph Fiennes was in the great final speech at the end, a small lost figure enclosed in a tiny square prison of light inside the vastness of the old Gainsborough studios. It is poetry which resonates all the more for having seen how Richard’s own insensitivity, foolishness and egotism led to his downfall. It had to come, but it still breaks your heart to see it happen as you understand that he has now learned what he needed to know about himself as a man, rather than a king, but just too late. I can remember my English teacher talking about how people cried in the theatre when Gielgud played that scene. I bet they did. It is a play full of poetry, the only Shakespeare play written entirely in blank verse, which also responds to being given beauty in its setting. The Almeida production filled the end of the Gainsborough studios with a stark beauty made of weathered brick and real trees, and the RSC production with Jeremy Irons was like a beautifully lit gleaming book of hours set on stage. A really great production of this play is a very special thing to see.

The BBC have returned to it again in summer 2012 as part of their hollow crown season with a fine cast and Rupert Goold directing. I was very excited to see it, but also just a bit concerned. This is a play that I have strong feelings about and if they didn’t get it right I was not going to like seeing it let down. Some of the old BBC Shakespeares (not Richard II thankfully) were distinctly dodgy. On the whole I needn’t have worried. There is some fine acting on show and that will always come first for me. Ben Whishaw is every bit as good as his many fans would have hoped as Richard. He looks wonderful and has the right capricious, insular, self obsessed, other worldly quality to play a monarch who is so in thrall to the trappings of the divine role of King that he has lost sight of everything else, including himself. You can see his thoughts flicker across his face and while this is sometimes deeply distasteful it works beautifully at the end of the play when there is nowhere left for him to hide from himself, nobody else for him to define himself by, and he is forced to meet himself face to face. There is some great support from some of our most experienced actors. David Suchet is a strong and believable York- a part that can look foolish if it is played badly- Patrick Stewart gives one of Shakespeare’s finest speeches as good a reading as you could hope for as John Of Gaunt, and it was a complete joy to see an actor of David Bradley’s stature giving real life to the tiny part of the gardener. Casting of such depth is probably the main reason for putting Shakespeare on screen where it will never quite belong.

When it comes to the direction by Rupert Goold I do have some reservations. There are some nice touches, like the way Richard feeds his monkey during the scene at the opening where Mowbray and Bolingboke are being banished, and there are some beautifully shot interior cathedral and tent scenes which work really well, but I’m not sure it was wise to open up the play to include exterior scenes. The famous hollow crown speech is not improved by being spoken by a Richard who has been wading around on a beach looking for all the world like Lawrence of Arabia. The religious iconograpy where Richard rides on a white donkey and is finally shot repeatedly by crossbow like St Sebastian is justified but rather too heavy handed for my taste. The play stands or falls on its poetry and you really shouldn’t let anything else distract from that. A lesser Richard II than Ben Whishaw would have sunk without trace when asked to carry the weight of all that. I am thrilled to have had the chance to see that performance close up.

For all my doubts this film was basically a success for me and I am heartened by it and looking forward to my other loves, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V. I have a feeling that I shall like the Henry IV’s even better.