My Mother Said I Never Should – St James’s Theatre

My Mother Said I Never Should - St James's Theatre

London goes to the polls this week to elect a new mayor and on the ballot only a quarter of the 12 candidates are female from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and the newly formed Women’s Equality Party which seeks to capitalise on a cultural wave of discussion and debates about the position of women in modern society. Interesting then, that the St James’s Theatre has revived Charlotte Keatley’s play My Mother Said I Never Should charting changing expectations of women’s lives in the twentieth century. Amazingly this play hasn’t been performed in London for 25 years – an extraordinary revelation given the four substantial roles it offers to actors – so this was my first encounter with the complete text, having only been given the abstract childhood scenes to perform in GCSE Drama.

The story is considerably more impactful than my 16-year old self was allowed to discover and follows four generations of one family from the early 1900s to the 1980s, examining how the relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters altered as society became more permissive and women began to find a life beyond the kitchen. Doris is the family’s matriarch, born in 1900 and expected to relinquish her teaching career when she marries. A woman of her time, Doris is seemingly aloof, restrained and strict with her own daughter Margaret who goes on to marry a GI much to her mother’s disgust. The result is Jackie, a child of the 60s, who goes to art college and becomes a successful gallery owner in the 80s, running her own business and enjoying all the newly won freedoms of the age. But Jackie secretly gave up her own baby allowing Margaret to raise Rosie as her own, an emotional decision that continues to plague her as she watches her daughter grow and thinking of someone else as her mother.

Keatley mixes all these stories together so we continuously flit between the decades, allowing the consequences of their decisions and those different approaches to motherhood to become really stark, emphasising what an important period of change this was in women’s lives. This production at the St James’s doesn’t make any judgements either about who was right or wrong, but sees choice as a product of its time. None of these women do anything lightly and though they may make heartbreaking (or depending on your perspective selfish) decisions – as Jackie in particular does to give up her child – these are not without life-affecting consequence. What is clear is that the modern right to work and to choose have been hard won, but women continue to feel torn between what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their families.

Paul Robinson’s production may deal with (now) historic projections of motherhood but the pared down vision feels as fresh and relevant as the original production must have done at the Royal Court in 1989. Signe Beckmann’s set is sparse and whitewashed littered with the odd TV screen which is used to reinforce what era we’re in between scenes – and the ongoing media pressure to live a certain way – which allows the performances to take centre stage. There are a few props including a hint of a piano (four legs only) but this serves as a reflection of the plot in which societal suggestions of how women ought to be are replicated in the suggested world they inhabit, a world that is incomplete. It is possible to see this as an insight into the half-lives the characters seem to live, choosing family or a career but never able to successfully have both – a dilemma modern woman can empathise with.

In a production of this nature, so much relies on the performances and this play offers opportunities for actors to showcase their range, something which the cast take full advantage of. My Mother Said I Never Should has a non-linear structure so as well as playing themselves at various ages the performers are required to become considerably older or younger within moments as the scene changes. Most challenging of all, and the hardest element to depict, are the waste-ground scenes that punctuate the story in which all four women as children aged from 5-9 years old play games together as classmates, despite continuing to represent their original time period and location. By stepping out of the play momentarily we see how similar yet different their childhoods had been, from the wide-eyed innocence of Doris in frilly knickers growing up in around 1905, to the tomboyish Rosie in dungarees talking about boys. The games are the same but the attitudes and freedoms change.

Best among the performances is an absolute gut-wrencher from Katie Brayben as modern mother Jackie. We first see her careering around the stage as her nine year old self performing faux voodoo and scaring the other children, a perfect set-up for what is to come because Jackie does scare her family by being the first to put her career before her child. Brayben makes this an excruciating decision for Jackie, one her mother Margaret cannot see or understand, and the scene in which she hands over the baby is incredibly poignant – she’s knows it’s for the best but is devastated all the same. Even better, having played Rosie’s sister for so long, is the moment the truth is discovered and Brayben uses all her skills to display years of pain, regret and anguish that may have you reaching for the tissues.

Equally brilliant is Maureen Lipman with a quite different performance as the initially formal and buttoned-up Doris, raised to be a lady, seeking only home and family, but almost lamenting the era in which she was raised because the opportunities afforded to later generations were denied her. While we see her as a sweet and innocent 5 year old in the wasteland scenes, this again reflects the engagement her adult self will have with the world. Doris is a prim and often stern mother to Margaret, but actually a cosy and warm great-grandmother to Rosie, and as the story unfolds we see her shift with the decades becoming a wise and ultimately more relaxed figure than the other women because she has seen so much.

My Mother Said I Never Should is a modern classic and its return to London after so long makes this a rare chance to see piece of writing about the demands made on women’s lives that still resonates. The pressure to have a successful career but still be a perfect 50s-style parent continues to exist and while young women are told they can be anything, if they chose not to be mothers at all – as Jackie does – a social stigma still remains. The production at the St James’s feels fresh and innovative, with strong performances from its four leads. Whether or not you choose a female candidate for London’s mayor this week, a wider interest in women’s roles in society, sparked by last year’s Suffragette film, means that this timely production of Keatley’s play will continue the debate, and is a wonderful evening at the theatre.

My Mother Said I Never Should is at the St James’s Theatre until 21 May. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Vogue 100: A Century of Style – National Portrait Gallery

The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty by Cecil Beaton

The National Portrait Gallery has had a very nice line in fashion photography over the years including an impressively insightful David Bailey retrospective in 2014. To celebrate the centenary of Vogue Britain, established in the midst of the First World War, the NPG presents a glamorous walk through the decades of a magazine that has reflected a changing taste in clothing as well as the political, economic and cultural influences of the day. Last year’s Alexander McQueen show at the V&A – arguably the greatest fashion exhibition ever to hit London – has changed how the history of fashion is presented and, although there are no clothes on display here, its influence can be felt in the in both the curation and more dynamic design of this exhibition.

London’s art scene is doing a roaring trade in photography exhibitions at the moment; some such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lee Miller: A Women’s War, can be seen viewed as a companion piece to the Vogue show, covering some of the same images including those of Miller in her early days as a model as well as her military work during the Second World War. Other shows such as the brilliant Strange and Familiar at the Barbican cover much of the same period but offer two very different interpretations of the world. Haute couture fashion is often seen as ‘aspirational’ and much of the material on display at the NPG reflects how women wanted to look in particular decades and the pages of Vogue can be interpreted as a history of how Britain wanted to be seen – whereas Strange and Familiar shows us who we really were – and seeing both in quick succession is an eye-opening insight into the last 70 years.

Vogue 100 actually starts in the here and now with modern covers and unexpectedly a film showing models in close up, playing in a mirrored alcove so everywhere you look are reflections upon reflections (one of the elements surely inspired by the McQueen show). Then you can trace a path back through the decades of celebrities and approaches, ending up where it all began in 1916. Trendy as it may be, it wasn’t clear what this backward-looking approach was supposed to give us, so instead you can defy the crowds as I did and march yourself all the way back to the 1920s (there’s no exit here you will still have to walk back anyway) and start from there, seeing the developments in fashion, photography and in the magazine’s approach to the cultural world it represents unfolding before your eyes.

Whichever way you chose to go this is clearly an exhibition about the artists that have made Vogue what it is today rather than the story of its production, editorship or backroom dramas. Instead we see how popular culture was presented and influenced by the pages of this magazine through the choices of models, designers, photographers, celebrities and actual artists who drew works for the early spreads or, like Picasso, were featured in the magazine itself. In the unique world of Vogue this walk through the twentieth century sees hemlines rise and fall as quickly as empires, and economic shifts in the aftermath of war and depression that affect fabrics choices and shoot locations.

The 1920s and 30s show a selection of early prints in decorated glass cases which is a nice touch reflecting the particular style of each era and the major players of the day. From a dancing Fred Astaire to stylish swimsuits for men and women (an image recently used as the cover for a novel about Hemingway), from society “it girls” to Horst’s famous corset images – which you may have seen in Horst’s own retrospective at the V&A last year – this decades represent a stagey look to the images with models in formal, often classical poses against pillars or architecture that infer the silhouette of the outfit. Often ‘moody’, the use of lighting creates contrasts of light and shadow that add considerable atmosphere to the black and white prints, as well as an elegance that colour photos just never seem to emulate.

On to the 40s and the décor becomes a bold striking red as the NPG contrasts its war coverage of pilots and military workers with the New Look that Dior introduced after the conflict. It’s an interesting approach that offers both sides of the magazine’s work, although the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition on Lee Miller has all the best images actually. On the fashion side the increased use of sites of destruction to contrast the outfits is apparent particularly in Norman Hartnell’s work where elegantly dressed ladies stand in front of bomb sites as though to suggesting ‘fashion is indestructible’. Here also there is a greater saturation of bold colour advocated by those like Cecil Beaton who was a major influence on Vogue’s unfolding style. His 1946 image of a model dressed entirely in shades of red with red accessories against a red background entitled ‘The Second Age of Glamour is Beauty’ is a memorable example of this dynamic approach.

The full-skirted elegance of the 50s gives way to a much more relaxed approach to modelling in the 1960s as formal poses are replaced with ‘action’ shots of fashion in everyday lives. Twiggy of course will be familiar, careering along on a scooter or Jean Shrimpton relaxing in a series of coats for one shoot. New photographers were also part of this freer style with David Bailey in particular starting to document the more liberal times on location and with more experimental images.  By the time we reach the 70s and 80s it’s those experiments with colour and composition that seem to take precedence, and some of the more memorable images here are Claudia Schiffer on the back of a motorbike which in colour is a study in monochrome, and a model in a 20s-esque red bathing suite leaning on a swing which we learn was fashioned ad hoc on location, and harks back to that early image of the bathers on the platform.

Onto the 90s and the rise of the supermodel with that famous cover, and in more recent images you should get used to seeing that darling of British Vogue, Kate Moss who is everywhere. From the ‘heroin chic’ pictures that launched her more simple ‘every-girl’ look to the African Queen image of her in a desert, there’s no doubting her influence. As more and more magazines sought to challenge Vogue’s dominance, the photoessays become increasingly outlandish and surreal including a 40s bomber shown coming through a chintzy living room wall to advertise a khaki inspired trend and a stunning pink powder-puff shot of Lily Cole. Colour also continues to dominate as digital images allow even greater opportunities to retouch the pictures in pre-production, enhancing their fantasy-like suggestion and getting to the heart of that aspirational life Vogue has always wanted to present.

Vogue 100 doesn’t claim the magazine has profoundly changed the world, but for 100 years it has reflected society’s changing values while offering entertainment and escapism to its readers. While this show doesn’t tackle the story of Vogue itself or any of the controversies its pages unleash such as the size zero model and the doctoring of images by airbrushing to extremes it’s an interesting version of a history the magazine wishes to present. It has attracted important photographers including Horst, Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier who have forwarded an artistic aesthetic that lifts what could have been a catalogue for expensive clothing to something more meaningful and inventive. And yes, it is all glossy photos of a world that doesn’t exist, but view it as an expression of a changing fantasy life and see it in partnership with the coincidentally contrasting show Strange and Familiar at the Barbican and both shows take on an added resonance that only adds to our understanding of the Britain we live in.

Vogue 100 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 May. Tickets are £17 without donation and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

Faustus

April and May are big months for Games of Thrones fans, not only does the sixth season premiere next Sunday but two of its biggest young stars are taking to the London stage in back-to-back theatres. Next month Richard Madden (who played Robb Stark) opens as the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet alongside his Cinderella co-star Downton’s Lily James. First, however is Kit Harington in Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated and lurid Faustus which starts press previews later this week with official reviews expected in the early hours of 26 April. Yet on leaving the theatre this weekend we were handed postcards actively asking for feedback which prompted this preview piece.

When an actor is widely associated with one particular role, it can be very difficult for audiences to see them as anyone else, and – especially when they’re young – for critics to forget they did anything before. Jon Snow may have made Harington an international star, but his theatre experience includes highly credible roles in War Horse and Posh. Some actors are content to spend their careers playing much the same part – a variant on their own personality – and in Hollywood it’s virtually obligatory where the film is sold on the star name rather than character. The more chameleonic actor, who disappears entirely into their role every time, is considerably more interesting to me, and in the UK it’s often down to shrewd choices. So an actor who gets their big break on TV, like Tennant or Cumberbatch, can still do varied and brilliant work that takes their new fans with them.  And it seems that Harington may do the same – whether Jon Snow lives or dies we will soon know, but with an emotional role in Testament of Youth under his belt and now this grimy take on Faustus, his diversity will stand him in good stead.

You can always rely on Jamie Lloyd for innovation and while this modern day retelling may have some purists (and probably critics) huffing into their programme, it manages to mix the drama and potency of Marlowe’s original language with modern themes about the pursuit of celebrity that make for a discomforting yet compelling evening. Most radical is the decision to utilise Marlowe’s text for most of the first half and at the end of the second, while in between adding additional scenes by Colin Teevan to form a theatrical cut-and-shut. Unlike its vehicular equivalent however this really works and gives Faustus’s ‘glory years’ a surreal or dream-like quality that for him seem to flash past in an instant.

Utilising the necromancy skills he employs to conjure Lucifer and his hoard, Faustus becomes not just any celebrity but, after watching David Copperfield on TV, a star magician, wowing the world with his power to control all things and we get to see a few magic tricks and theatrical slight-of-hand as part of the fun – it’s all done with a graphic-novel-like silliness that only serves to make everything else more unpalatable. This is an inspired plot point that neatly marries Marlowe’s original tale with the company’s insinuation of a similarly soulless modern desire for fame at any price. It uses a reality-celebrity feel to give a new twist to traditional allusions, including at one point a naked Adam and Eve that seems to question both heaven and hell as aspirational concepts. In fact of the seven deadly sins (brilliantly enacted by Tom Edden) it is lust that frequently rears its head in this production as scantily clad characters occasionally grope and pleasure each other. But it’s always shabby and sordid showing how easily corrupted Faustus was for grubby earthly desires.

Lloyd achieves a dark contemporary feel extremely well and is made manifest in the (ever-brilliant) Soutra Gilmour set. As the audience take their seat Faustus sits staring brainlessly at the TV in a seedy-looking flat as modern devil-based pop classics blare out; everything is soiled and worn with age, a depressing motel-like set-up, making Faustus’s choice to sell his soul his only chance of escape from this disgusting drone-like existence, rather than just vanity. The sordidness of this deal is ever-present and as the set pulls apart to reveal a series of nasty theatre Green Rooms and hotels, that are a far cry from the glamour he craves, there may be colour, adulation and success but it all has a depressing tinge, a constant reminder of the price he’s yet to pay.

Harington is a conflicted Faustus and while he constantly doubts his decision, it is never suggested he is a good man led astray. On the contrary Harington’s Faustus has a dark heart which always overrides his conscience, driven by his want of public recognition and frequent lusts. It is only when he achieves it that he finds he’s made an empty bargain and seeks something pure and real with his assistant played by Jade Anouka (one of two roles perfectly recast as women). This performance is so interesting because it’s not a straight projection from nothing to everything; instead Harington makes him waver and at times even to skirt regret only to resurge into arrogance, feeling it all worthwhile. As the years pass too quickly those lows become more pronounced as his fame tails off with nothing to show for it and Harington is at his best in these later scenes as desperation gives way to resignation as he performs some dark and unforgiveable acts. As Lucifer finally appears to collect his due back in the old apartment, you’re left wondering if any of it was real. It is an absorbing and nuanced performance that will only grow more emotional as the run continues.

The role of Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s companion who is ‘lent’ to Faustus for his 24 year reign is being played by Jenna Russell who almost steals the show with a performance of comedic envy that is a joy to watch and constantly unsettling. Faustus primarily engages with two characters during his fame – Wagner and Mephistopheles – and by making them both women adds a much needed gender balance as well as emphasising the battle between them for his attention. Russell is a brutal guardian, pushing Faustus towards his dreams but serving as a constant reminder of Lucifer’s power, never allowing Faustus to enjoy himself too much in case he tries to break the pact. We’re even treated to a mini-concert including Better the Devil Your Know and Devil Woman after the interval which is a rousing opener to Act Two.

Forbes Mason is a brilliantly squalid Lucifer, who commands a pack of devils that silently surround Faustus at all times dressed in soiled underwear and t-shirts. They seem to spring from the dingy flat he lives in, reflecting as the set does that distasteful bargain with even Faustus himself wearing a dirty tracksuit for much of the show until even he succumbs to underwear as his destiny comes ever closer – one of the real successes of this production is how fully realised this grubbiness is and how it continues to haunt Faustus.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is vibrant, and as previously seen with The Ruling Class and The Homecoming, teeters always on the edge of sinister and bizarre. The vision he creates on stage here is brash and unnerving, seamlessly integrating centuries old speeches and imagery with modern pop culture influences that make for a fascinating and thought-provoking night at the theatre. Lloyd’s theatre company has a mission to engage with first-time theatre goers and if the rows of teenage girls are anything to go by, Faustus has succeeded in attracting them. It may be the young star that has got them through the door but his performance and the Lloyd-Gilmour vision will show them that London theatre is as exciting as it’s ever been. And with Branagh promising a contemporary two-hour Romeo and Juliet in the theatre behind this one, it’s not just Game of Thrones fans who have lots to look forward to this April and May.

Faustus is at the Duke of Yorks Theatre until 25 June with tickets from £15. This season is part of the £15 Mondays scheme allowing you to purchase reduced price tickets for any Monday in that month available on on 3 May and 1 June.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers – Barbican

Bruce Davidson - Hastings

Who are we and what have we been? This is the key question that photographer Martin Parr examines in the Barbican’s astonishing new exhibition which Parr has curated, of international photographer’s perspectives on Britain since the 1930s. What it means to be British and how the challenges of the twentieth-century shaped who we are has troubled historians for a long time, with cultural outlets recently beginning to catch-up presenting insightful exhibitions such as the Tate’s Artist and Empire show and Parr’s own exhibition at the Science Museum last year. But is how we see ourselves the same as how others see us? The answer is yes and no, and while the images displayed here are unarguably British, they show far more reality than our own nostalgic view of the last seven decades.

Our perspective of these years is a blur of pop culture images, heavyweight political stories and romanticised projections, a ‘Downton Abbey’ view of a history that never was. From the smiley victory rolled women of the 1940s to the mini-skirted dollies of the 60s and on to the power-suited greed of the 80s, our view is highly focused on metropolitan areas, especially London, and coloured by fashions, celebrity and periods of supposed societal ‘change’. But this is far from the Britain that the vast majority of people actually lived in and one of the most fascinating aspects of this exhibition is just how domestically unchanging Britain appears to be.

Through the eyes of over 20 external observers, we are a land of work and predominately working class people, of decaying buildings, unresolved industrial decline and poverty, but never of hopelessness judging by the number of happy looking scamps playing in the streets or people having a lovely night in the pub. There are the obligatory shots of bowler-hatted financiers and 60s youth enjoying rock concerts, but most overwhelmingly Britain is a place of Sunday football in the local field, of coal miners enjoying their tea, of seaside holidays and, unfortunately for all the republicans out there, of enthusiasm for the Royal Family, as flag-waving patriots hold street parties in honour of coronations, jubilees and royal weddings or happily sit among the detritus of London streets to catch the action first hand. Interestingly the middle and upper classes barely get a look in, this is a Britain of ordinary people living ordinary lives, battling in that charmingly stoical British way.

The abiding image of the exhibition is by American Bruce Davidson of two old people, sitting in their Sunday best in deckchairs on the beach at Hastings, drinking tea from a cup and saucer. Like Parr’s own work there is wry humour to this scene but also a clear human story of the obviously long-married couple at its heart braving the weather. It is so familiar an image yet seems long ago – who now would take an actual cup and saucer to the beach – but somehow this picture seems to epitomise everything we think about ourselves and interesting to see that it accords with how others also see us.  As a long-term London resident it’s also hard not to be drawn to the shots of the capital including Chilean Sergio Larrain’s beautiful tube escalator at Baker Street station shining up to the sky as well behaved commuters stand on the right and the man in the centre close to the camera gives it an inviting perspective (1958-59), or the wonderfully humorous image of a quirky old lady sitting on the shoulders of two upright gentlemen in Trafalgar Square as she tries to catch the Coronation of George VI in 1937 pictured by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson.

And it is these ordinary folk that make this exhibition so enriching and combining so many images from across the UK it is clear we have never adequately resolved the problem of industrialisation. Edith Tudor-Hart’s dramatic 1930s portrait of the tiny backyard of a slum dwelling in which a mother and her six children are crammed into one half, divided by a small washing line, while surrounded by broken chairs and rubble on the high walls. Similarly she recorded a dramatic picture of a group of children having ultra-violet light treatment, presumably for skin conditions, that this collection implies are the result of living conditions. Bruce Davidson picks up this theme in the 1960s in Wales as factory towers emit smoke into the greyed countryside as a white-dressed bride picks her way across the field to be married, or a small bespectacled boy pushes his teddy and doll in a pram as the entire background is swallowed up in industrial smog. These images remind us that not only were so many places reliant on the industries like mining that have left social decay behind them, but were themselves a double-edged sword that brought tough urban living conditions for many that have barely improved since.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this show is how multiracial Britain appears through the eyes of these photographers. Cas Oorthuys from The Netherlands took a series of pictures of Oxford in the 1960s including one of a two black students in their gowns and what is presumably their friend on his bike. Frank Habicht’s picture of Vanessa Redgrave carrying a peace protest banner in 1968 and fellow German Candida Hofer’s shots of turbaned schoolboys in Liverpool also help to reinforce this sense of Britain as a more multicultural society than is often depicted and it’s worth looking at the crowds in many pictures to see this long-existent diversity.

Some of the more recent work on the ground floor of the exhibition adds to the regional, and at times highly politicised, feel of the exhibition including Japanese photographer Akihiko Okamura’s shots of Northern Ireland which give a sense of the effect of war in the1970s on the people living there including two dressed-up children at a street shrine with a backdrop of destruction in a terraced street, and various victory celebrations in Londonderry. Axel Hütte’s images of decaying tower blocks have a similar effect actually making you think about the lives they contain, and the unfulfilled hope of elaborate names like ‘Hamlet Court’.

But it’s not all doom laden stuff and American Jim Dow’s shop-window images benefit from improvements in photography that tap into our nostalgia for the corner shop, including the bountiful Scarborough sweet shop, a takeaway in Leicester and a wallpaper shop in Leytonstone all of which leap out at you. The move to digital images is captured brilliantly by Bruce Gilden’s stark and brutal portraits that end the show, of faces he captured around the country. Five intimidating faces glare down at you with very little background and instead you see every line and vein. These are not flattering shots by any means, almost grotesques in fact, as you see the bursting redness of alcoholism on ‘Peter’s’ nose, and the re-growing hairs on the eyebrows, upper lip and chin of the painted Essex women. But they’re not images to laugh at and somehow you can see the despair and hardship in their eyes which tells you that maybe nothing much has changed since the time of Tudor-Hart’s slum children. The fashions come and go, but the problems remain the same.

Strange and Familiar is an extraordinary exhibition that forces us to really think about who we are. As you walk through the decades and see Britain through the eyes of other people it certainly makes you think about how much has really changed. Each ages had its own concept of modernity but what is so clear in this exhibition is that only applied to a select few. There is a timelessness to it; outside of London, daily life hasn’t altered all that much, Britain is still decaying but life goes on. Most importantly, Britons still try to have a good time – we get dressed up, have a drink at the pub with our friends or a cup of tea and just get on with it. Unflattering it may be at times, but the perspective of these twenty-odd international photographers, under Martin Parr’s skilled curation, shows us that whatever happened to Britain in the last 70 years, life goes on.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers is at the Barbican until 19 June. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


TV Preview: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II –BFI Southbank

The Hollow Crown Season 2

‘…let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’, so speaks Shakespeare’s Richard II on his return from Ireland to find his kingdom carried away in his absence. And this is arguably one of the major themes of the BBC’s Hollow Crown season which opened with Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V back in 2012 and returns to TV with a two part Henry VI and Richard III this month. Previewed at the BFI Southbank last week with some of the cast and crew in attendance, the new season opens with a two part digest of Shakespeare’s Henry VI which we watched back to back in a 4 hour marathon with Q&A, and seen in the context of the four earlier productions, emphasises how volatile this period of history was with innumerable deaths, lunges for power and cutting betrayals culminating in, as Richard II described, a series of ‘sad stories of the death of Kings.’

Henry VI becomes King at 9 months old when his father Henry V dies not long after his famous Agincourt victory, and the realm is governed for the next two decades by the Duke of Gloucester as protector. But the adult Henry is too weak to relinquish his Lord Protector and continues to defer decision-making, much to the chagrin of the warring houses of Lancaster and York. In the meantime, Richard Plantagenet, a senior statesman in the House of York decides to press his suit for the monarchy and what ensues across the two plays is a complex and intricate web of political and family intrigue as the young King is unable to hold back civil war – exacerbated by Henry’s loss of the French territories his father fought so hard for – which threatens to consume his entire kingdom.

I’ve never seen a stage version of these plays and the first thing Google tells you is that Henry VI is considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful works and there is considerable doubt that he wrote all of it. In the Q&A held alongside this screening, adaptor Ben Power and director Dominic Cooke discussed the ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature of the original text which they have reshaped and slimmed. The result is a gripping and engaging two part story that helps the first-time audience keep all the key figures straight without too much erroneous sub-plotting. Both parts bristle with danger as powerful men jockey for position as their King stands helplessly by.

Ton Sturridge, in his first Shakespeare role, gives Henry just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and, interestingly, a fear of trusting his own judgement. He is easily influenced by anyone who offers him counsel, and we see his opinions change with the breeze as different poisons are poured into his ear. Sturridge’s Henry is timid and trusting of anyone who appears to have more political strength than him, and on the few occasions when he seems to be flexing his monarchical muscles his determination is short-lived.  For a character with almost no monologues (in this adaptation anyway) it’s difficult to completely understand his reticence but Sturridge is affecting, not least in Part II when his wish to be an ordinary man is granted but after enduring a grim life in the Tower the chance to be King again brings a moving flicker of hope – the echoes of Richard II are startling. Visually too Henry is shown to be an onlooker always, sitting back as more knowledgeable men debate the issues at court, and also hiding among the trees watching as his own troops fight for him as he has never fought for himself.

There are great supporting performances, not least from Hugh Bonneville as perhaps the only decent man at court, the innocent Duke of Gloucester, loathed only because he has the ear of the King – proof that at this time innocence couldn’t save you from the malice of others. Ben Miles is absolutely superb as the loathsome Somerset, a Lancastrian who intrigues to marry Henry to a French princess only to take her as his own lover and between them manipulate the King to forward the Lancastrian cause – Miles of course was recently a much praised Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a worthy rival to Mark Rylance’s TV incarnation. Sophie Okonedo is equally fantastic as the scheming Queen Margaret, strong, vicious and revelling in the chance to crush her enemies, even actually fighting in the final battle scenes.

Not everything about this works perfectly and while the political scenes are tense and engaging, the numerous battles are somewhat lacklustre and hampered by budget constraints. It’s pretty clear in every single fight scene that there are only about 20 extras which fail to sufficiently convey the thousands engaged in these civil war battles and the notion of a nation in crisis. There’s also some dubious CGI suggesting ships on their way to fight with France, and even worse ‘epic’ music that’s straight out of Hollywood-battle-scenes-by-numbers, and is completely at odds with what the Henry VI plays are actually about. Strip away the sword fighting and all of Shakespeare’s history plays are intimate in scale, about extended branches of the same family rowing about who should be King and this music implies a level of heroism in the battles which didn’t exist in this tawdry and sullied world of political double crossing. As much as these events are nationally affecting, the epic sweep approach seems inappropriate and these adaptations are at their best in these domestic scenes among a tiny elite which just happens to have wider dynastic consequences.

It’s also clear, at times, that these were made before Justin Kurzel’s movie of Macbeth was released, about which I was unapologetically gushing. A game-changer for the way Shakespeare can be filmed (and also on a reasonably small budget), these Henry VI adaptations are being aired in a new context. The problematic battle scenes mentioned above, feel less successful because Macbeth showed how a small cast produced something that is both horribly brutal and still somehow visually poetic. And even away from the battlefields, very occasionally these long adaptations want for dynamism – how many more times do we want to see a group of middle aged men shouting at each other in a variety of grand medieval halls? Is there a more exciting way to present some of this material?

One of the highlights for many will be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Richard III which follows this two part Henry VI, but Richard actually appears for the first time in Henry VI Part II so we got to see a little of the background to the character to come. The physical traits of damaged arm and twisted leg are present and Cumberbatch will clearly be a desperately evil Richard with the early signs of his bloodlust and coveting of the crown very much in evidence. Initially it’s a little bit panto villain but by the time he delivers the only lengthy monologue at the end of the 4 hours it’s clear his Richard will chills us – ‘he plays a good psycho’ as Cooke and Power joked during the Q&A where most of the talk was about Richard III, much too Sturridge’s irritation who, quite rightly, wanted to focus on Henry. But it’s going to be an interesting season finale when it finally airs.

The Hollow Crown season has been a big success for the BBC and these long-anticipated new adaptations won’t disappoint. Playing these stories concurrently has offered the viewer something you rarely get in the theatre, a chance to see an entire sweep of history and the recurring themes that punctuate these plays – the relationship of fathers and their sons be they monarchs or nobility, the price of wanting and obtaining power, as well its fickle nature as you see prime movers in one play unceremoniously dispatched in the next and a new generation of players assume the political stage. This preview at the BFI certainly got me thinking again about Richard II and all those sad stories about Kings that followed. In the Hollow Crown we find that the old adage is true, power corrupts and whether it be mere soldiers or mighty monarchs nothing will stand in its way.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II will be shown on the BBC in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This event took place at the BFI Southbank – visit their website for more TV previews. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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