‘…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