Monday, January 2, 2017

The Hollow Crown II

     I finally got to see the last installment of the BBC "Hollow Crown" series.  The first series appeared several years ago and included the plays: Richard II, Henry IV I & II and Henry V.  It is reviewed here - Hollow Crown I!  Now the last set has been released and it includes Henry VI 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III.  But quickly I must add that there are only two installments of Henry VI as they are condensed from 3 plays to two. In a way it is too bad.  It might have been nice to have done the plays in their entirety.  But on the other hand they are a long and epic in their attempt to tell the detailed (albeit filtered through Elizabethan eyes) story of the long and painful reign of Henry VI. Almost all of the French scenes are cut.  Joan Pucelle (Joan of Arc) appears but she is not developed but the objectionable scene where she looses her nerve and tries to escape execution by claiming to be pregnant is cut.  Joan of Arc at least has more dignity in this production than is usually the case. I won't go into any more about the cuts as I think for the most part they worked and for screen the way the scripts were assembled worked very well in maintaining what was really a riveting set of performances.

     The casting of the series is simply amazing.  Certainly the leading characters were magnificent. Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, Hugh Bonneville as the Duke of Glouchester and Lord Protector, Adrian Dunbar as Richard, Duke of York, Phoebe Fox as Anne Neville, Dame Judy Dench was simply spellbinding as Cecily, Duchess of York and for me the two members of the cast whose performances I found overwhelmingly outstanding were Tom Sturridge as Henry VI and Sopie Okonedo as Queen Margaret.  Those two were the only two to appear in all three plays (films) - though Henry VI comes back as only briefly as a ghost in Richard III. Queen Margaret of Anjou was given a central role in the series - she was the glue.  Her journey I found the most compelling and this actress was able to take us through from the shy girl who is discovered by Somerset to the incredible force behind Henry VI to the living phantom who haunts Richard the III until the end!  Never have I seen this character take such a central part, but frankly since Richard III is the play that is done most often I am not sure this approach would work with only that play.  You have to experience her from the beginning.

     The other thing I want to say about the casting is that I am not sure I have every seen a performance where all of the supporting roles were so brilliantly cast. Everyone was outstanding, including the children - in fact there was a scene that I don't remember having seen before included where the little Richard, Duke of York (one of the two princes in the tower) mocks his misshapen Uncle Richard and it was a chilling scene.  Other amazing performances would include Anton Lesser as the Duke of Exeter, Sally Hawkins as the Duchess of Glouchester, Stanley Townsend as the Earl of Warwick, Samuel West as the Bishop of Winchester, Ben Miles as the Duke of Somerset, Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville, Ben Daniels as the Duke of Buckingham, James Fleet as Hastings and the actor who played Catesby was really outstanding (why does Wikipedia not list the entire cast - they don't even list the actor who played the Earl of Richmond who ends the entire series by defeating Richard III and being crowned Henry VII, this is the character that gives the very Tudor inspired speech at the end about uniting the houses of York and Lancaster in perfect unity.  He was excellent, by the way and should be listed!

     If you have any interest in Shakespeare, and in the history plays I strongly recommend this series - both parts.  I think of the 7 plays included in the entire series I think my favorite would still have to be the Henry IV series, probably because I particularly love those plays, but also because they are so well acted and well filmed.  Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale and Jeremy Irons all put in magnificent performances. After that I think I would vote for the Richard III, but this 2nd set is designed to be watched as a set and to skip the Henry VI parts means you would miss out on a lot. This is not necessarily true of the first set of this series.  Those performances stand on their own much more.  And the reason for this is probably because in the first series a different director was engaged for each of the different plays (this is especially unfortunate in the case of Henry V which is in my view the weakest of the entire set).  For Hollow Crown II one director - Dominic Cooke - directed and he created a unified vision that really makes these plays work together.  This is a treasure! Highly recommended!

     One last comment in general.  I have made the comment before that one should never look to the theater for historical accuracy and indeed Shakespeare's history plays are rife with Elizabethan fantasy and legend.  The two major legends being 1. That Hal - later Henry V - led a dissolute life with low life friends like Sir John Falstaff and did so in order to truly understand the mind of the people, but eventually casting them off - not true!  2. Richard III was a murderous, evil twisted man who murdered his way to the throne, including the two children in the tower - not true!  Still the plays have so much depth and can teach us so much about being human; about what is it that causes people to lust after power, to engage in such bloody conflicts and what are the consequences!  The Henry IV plays for me are an exploration of the issue of fatherhood - Sir John and Hal's real father, the King Henry IV are both deeply flawed men and neither is much of a father - but both for different reasons. Hal rejects one initially and ultimately rejects the other.  The final scene between Hal and Henry IV is for me one of the most moving scenes in all of Shakespeare.

     And Richard III for its rather unfair treatment of that last white rose Yorkish king who by all accounts was a pretty good king - certainly better than his brother Edward IV and (sorry Tudor fans) a whole lot better than Henry VII (who is the Messiah figure Richmond in the play - of course, he was, after all, Queen Elizabeth I's grandfather!)  Henry VII was withdrawn, brooding and highly insecure to the point of paranoia.  It was he who created the beginnings of the Tudor police state which eventually was so brilliantly managed and looked over by Elizabeth's spymaster Francis Walsingham and and her Secretary of State William Cecil.  But none of that matters, because Richard the III is ultimately not history, it is a study of the nature of evil.  And Cumberbatch's performance gives us a brilliant portrayal of a vulnerable Richard who is driven to evil and murder, but who also suffers from his obsessions and insecurity.  The play is brilliant but this performance is virtuostic! Shakespeare uses a technique in this play that he will utilize later, especially in Hamlet, and that is the use of the soliloquy.  Richard talks to us, confides in us, the audience, and looks to us as he is slowly weaving his plans.  It makes this play stand out and is different than all of the other history plays. But it has the effect of making us complicit in the evil that is buried deep in this tyrants heart.  We become a part and a player in the evolution of this evil monster and it should call for us to look deep into our own hearts to see the evil that Richard appeals to in all of us.  The death of Richard at Bosworth Field, and the final shot of the field in this film should give us all pause as we go plunging forward ignoring the lessons of history and the dangers of hate and lust for power and desire for revenge.  Do you see Richard III lying dead in the mud - that is where revenge and hate and selfishness and violence lead.  It led Richard and so many of the Yorks and Lancasters there in the 14th through the 15th centuries and it is going to lead us to the very same place today - except that technology has made the stakes higher and more dangerous. But it is the same story.

     So, get it and watch it.  You can stream it on the PBS site.  You can buy it on Amazon.  Take the lessons to heart.  For as bloody as it is remember they are only using swords and spears!


  1. Fantastic review, Blake!! I'll have to come back and read it a second time later, as it is rich with detail and food for thought. I also loved this second series so much! Sophie Okonedo was, I agree, the "glue" as you say...or as my family says, "the rug that holds the room together" (one of our many movie references ;) ). She was absolutely mesmerizing, and what the adaptation did with her character was absolutely brilliant.

    It was also, for me, a fantastic way of seeing the Henry VIs for the first time. (That trilogy being one of the few Shakespeares that I have not seen/read.) I thought the 2 VIs were fast-paced, clear, dramatic, and suspenseful, with fantastic acting and characterization. Similarly, with Richard III, I thought it was an amazing ensemble.

    In the first series, I must say the only one I was crazy about was Richard II, and I was blown away by Ben Wishaw. As much as I love Tom Hiddleston, I was frustrated with the director for some of the choices in Henry IV and V (although Henry IV,1 is one of my favorite Shakespeares). Henry V was, I agree, the weakest. (I try not to compare to Branagh, but really, it is difficult not to...) and perhaps the two moments I was most frustrated with were the way two of Henry's great speeches were done: Harfleurs (why is he making the speech AFTER he has virtually taken it over already? wasn't the whole point of his threatening to rape, pillage, etc, that he was making a last desperate effort, and basically trying to sound like he was more ruthless than he really was? In the Hiddles version, there really is no excuse for his rather terrible words at that point. At least, that's my memory...I've tried to forget those particular moments ;) ). And as to St Crispin's Day, well, again, it's so difficult not to compare it to Branagh, with the glorious Patrick Doyle score, but in the Hollow Crown series the rousing speech was done, well, not so rousingly...sometimes as I recall he even seemed to be almost "whispering" or talking in a voice as though he was in a room with a few compatriots. It just didn't quite work, I thought...

    But those things aside, the whole series is really quite a marvel, especially RII and then the HVIs and RIII. Just awesome. Again, thanks for these comments and I look forward to rereading this later.

  2. Rachel, thanks for your insightful comments. Have you followed the link above and read my review from several years ago of HC I? If you do you will see that I also really liked the Richard II and Ben Wishaw. It was I think excellent, though as I say in my review I had a major problem with the revision to the narrative at the end of the play. Have you seen the Helen Mirran / Julie Taymor "Tempest" with Wishaw as Ariel? It is terrific! She is amazing as Prospera, so much so that I wish Shakespeare had written it that way. And the way they do all the CGI with Ariel is pretty cool. Highly recommended.

    I won't repeat everything I put in that other review. I really liked the Henry IV also with a few caveats. But I really hated the Henry V and I completely agree with your comments about the speeches. Frankly, I have never seen a production of this play that is better than the Branagh film. He is the definitive H5. But my biggest complaint is the cutting of the conspiracy scene. That is enough to insure I never watch that version again. That scene is essential for a whole variety of reasons - and having seen HC2 now to that list you can add the fact that one of the conspirators who is executed is the father of Richard of York and this comes up from time to time, but if you are watching this series straight through you won't know what they are talking about. Poor, poor, poor choice on the part of the director. They also cut that scene in the Olivier version, but the motivation is quite well known. The film was done during the dark days of the war as a way of lifting the spirits and inspiring troops and citizens. In that context it makes sense to eliminate that rather negative scene - it was left out at the request of Winston Churchill! But there is no such motivation here and no excuse IMHO.

    I have seen Henry VI several times. The first time was a live stream from a Globe production a couple years ago. They toured all the famous battlefields of the Wars of Roses and performed the plays - uncut as far as I could tell. I was able to watch them all. And it was raining at Barnet Battlefield that day! The last production I saw was in Chicago as part of a two part piece they called Tug of War. They did Edward III, Henry V and Henry Vi, part 1 and then 3 months later they did Henry VI parts 2 and 3 and Richard 3. I have reviewed it below on my blog. Edward 3 was really interesting and it has many parallels to Henry V which they brought out - during the Harfleur speech for example as Henry makes his violent speech, Edward III (his grandfather) echoes his words from a similar speech at Crecy. It was amazing. I liked this HC Henry VI, but I do regret that they chose not to do it complete. In addition to most of the French stuff they also left out the Jack Cade rebellion, which is too bad also (read what I said about that below). Actually The Chicago production focused on much of the material that was cut from HC and vice versa, since Tug of War focused on war making and power lust.

    Lastly I'll say that I much prefer this Richard III to Olivier which is set in a kind of fantasy middle ages. I suppose that was vogue back then, but I prefer the more realistic medieval setting. Which is what I liked best about the Henry IV plays from HC I. Especially the Eastcheap scenes - very well done and the characters were much more wretched than usual. HC gave us a real Falstaff and not a fake medieval Santa Claus Falstaff (who shakes as he laughs like a bowl full of jelly) which I like so much more.

    1. What great points...and lol about Falstaff ;)

      I'm so glad to have reread this and now to also have gone back to the earlier post as well on HC 1.

      And YES (!!!) how could I forget--again, maybe I subconsciously *wanted* to forget?--that they cut the conspiracy scene with Scroop & co in HV!!! You're right, that's at least as problematic as the interpretive choices of the other crucial speeches, as it has very clear ramifications! Not to mention it is one of the most powerful scenes in the play. I was starting to get choked up again as I just went back to reread that scene, inspired by this post, and of course, here again, I can't help but hear Branagh's exquisite delivery:

      "Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
      That knewest the very bottom of my soul,
      That (almost) mightst have coined me into gold,
      Wouldst thou have practiced on me for thy use--
      May it be possible that foreign hire
      Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
      That might annoy my finger? 'Tis so strange
      That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
      As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it..."

      At least one other stage version I've seen has also cut it all out. So many seem to think it dispensable.

      As to Olivier...yes, it makes sense why certain cuts were made (I didn't know that about Churchill! ) I've not gone back to his HV which I saw as a teen, after the Branagh comparison. I admire Olivier so much, in many things, and when he was really, really *on* (e.g. his very different-from-BC but delightfully juicy RIII, or his Lord Marchmain in Brideshead R miniseries) he was brilliant; but I was not hugely crazy about his Henry as I recall...and I try to forget his Othello in many respects. (Perhaps that is sacrilege to try and forget it in terms of Shakespeare film history...but...)

      Also, I'm intrigued by the father-son dynamic in HIV 1/2...I need to go back and revisit the part 2...

      Thanks for the Mirren/Taymor Tempest recommendation! Great!