Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Henrys meet Game of Thrones - The Hollow Crown: Henry VI part one, review

The first four episodes of the BBC'S Shakespearean epic The Hollow Crown, charting the fall of Richard II and the rise of Henry V, set a new benchmark in TV adaptations of Shakespeare. It brought in a new generation of players (including Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston) who knew how to act to camera, and brought iambic pentameter to life against a backdrop of Britain’s mighty buildings and rolling hills.

The Hollow Crown now returns with three more films hewn from Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, ending with Richard III, telling the story of the Wars of the Roses. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the hunchbacked Richard, it’s been hyped to the skies. But does it deliver?

Last night’s first episode (Henry VI Part I ) was a promising start. With lank hair, fleshy lips and a reedy voice, Tom Sturridge was a masterpiece of indecision and hopelessness as the teenage Henry, who was denuded of power by his obsequious protector, the Duke of Gloucester, played with Lord Grantham-like guilelessness by Hugh Bonneville.

The agent of Gloucester’s destruction turned out to be the Machiavellian Earl of Somerset, a scene-stealing, indeed, film-stealing turn by Ben Miles. The director Dominic Cooke used every camera trick in the book to focus our attention on him as, like a chess grandmaster, he plotted to take control of the king.

Broken England is fighting to reclaim lost territories, and Cooke resisted the temptation to play out the scenes set in France jingoistically with British actors attempting cod French accents. Instead he allowed the enemy to speak as recognisable humans, rather than half-baked “Froggies”.

The effect was revelatory. Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan) appeared in all her defiant might, pouring curses on English heads in a northern accent: no elfin French maid, she, but a fully fledged warrior from the back streets. Her death scene, with her being led shaven-headed and half-naked to the stake, pulled no punches.

The comparison with the wildly successful TV adaptations of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones is unavoidable. Martin has acknowledged that he took the Wars of the Roses as source material for his stories, and the TV versions of them have brought the feuds and passions of a medieval world alive in a way that Shakespeare films of the past could only have dreamed of. Cooke would have been a fool not to take note and it’s clear that he has.

As the action cross-cut from court to battlefield, from moments of shrewd dialogue to moments of adrenalin-fuelled action, the audience-grabbing spirit of Westeros was everywhere to be seen. To borrow tricks from Game of Thrones should not be seen as dumbing down Shakespeare; rather, as wising up.

Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays offer many opportunities to wallow in violence but, it has to be said, fewer to indulge in sex. This adaptation took the leap, though, interleaving Somerset and Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo), grunting in ecstasy with the screams of Gloucester being murdered in the Tower. Sensationalist? Maybe. But Margaret was suspected of having affairs with both Suffolk and Somerset, and Shakespeare had no qualms about stoking the rumours in his play.

Keep your eye on Okonedo as the series progresses. Margaret of Anjou was a woman out of her time, and Okonedo’s turn as a sexy, go-getting, bitch-slapping political player was, alongside Miles’s Somerset, the stand-out performance of the film. But she’ll have her work cut out to blow Cumberbatch off the screen, after he limped portentously, face in shadow, into view as the credits rolled.

Theatrical purists may throw their hands up in horror at the hundreds of lines of Shakespearean verse left littered on the cutting floor, at the mashing together of characters to create a simple narrative, at the unnecessary modernisation of syntax and vocabulary. It’s a difficult balance: yes, it’s important for Shakespeare to win over younger spectators, but the last time I looked he wasn’t struggling to find an audience.

What Cooke captures is the scope, the daring and the savage headlong rush of the poet’s imagination, and that’s not to be scoffed at.

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