Shakespeare fans rejoice! As part of the Bard’s 400th birthday celebrations, the BBC have embarked on the second cycle of their dramatisations of the history plays. Back in 2012 we had Henry IV and Henry V with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston at the helm and now we embark on the most tumultuous and bloody period of British history: the Wars of the Roses. With three parts of the lesser-known Henry VI condensed into two episodes, the present cycle will round off in style with Richard III. As I did last time with Henry IV, I’ll write about both parts of Henry VI here and Richard will get his own post. And so, to steal shamelessly from another play, once more unto the breach…
HENRY VI, PART 1
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed.
(Epilogue, Henry V)
We begin Henry VI at the point where Henry V ended in the first cycle of The Hollow Crown: beside the coffin of the late king. His brother Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) and his advisers the Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West) and Exeter (Anton Lesser) are greeted with news that France has already dared to seize back some of the territories conquered on Henry’s campaigns. While doughty Exeter heads off to rally the English troops, Gloucester takes the crown to the new king: Henry’s infant son, now Henry VI, for whom he also becomes Protector. It’s no time to have a child-king, but for now Henry V’s memory is strong enough to bind the lords of England to his son.
Fast-forward seventeen years and it’s a different story. Henry has grown into the rather beautiful Tom Sturridge (whom I last saw as the Earl of Southampton, heartlessly flirting with Shakespeare in A Waste of Shame), but his powers of governance haven’t grown with him. He’s anxious, pious and overly young for his age: Gloucester still rules on his behalf and England’s other nobles simmer with indignation, suspecting that Gloucester means to keep the young king subject to his authority. Henry’s uncle Winchester, a cardinal, feels the regency would be better in his hands and plots Gloucester’s downfall, but the real threat is elsewhere. A feud between the Dukes of Somerset (Ben Miles) and York (Adrian Dunbar) escalates into faction, as York invokes Henry IV’s murder of Richard II and subsequent usurpation, and claims that he himself has a better right to the throne than Henry. The powerful Earl of Warwick (Stanley Townsend), who will later gain the soubriquet ‘Kingmaker’, inclines towards York’s claim. York and his friends sport white roses; Somerset and his adherents red. And the rest, as they say, is history.
To make matters worse, the French continue to claw back the territories won at great cost by Henry V, stinging the pride of the old English warriors who gave their blood at Agincourt; and Henry VI does nothing, believing that all should be resolved through peace and concord and love. The situation is fanned into flames by the arrival of Henry’s queen: Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo), chosen by Somerset as a way to win the king’s favour. This adaptation sees Margaret and Somerset as lovers from the start, conspiring to bring down Gloucester so that Somerset can step into the breach and rule the king through his influence over the queen. But Somerset’s ambition and hatred of Gloucester outpaces his wisdom: he isn’t content simply to destroy Gloucester, but wants him dead instead. And it’s then, in the power vacuum left by the old man’s murder, that York makes his claim public and England’s peace goes up in conflagration.
The great thing about The Hollow Crown is that the BBC can draw on the noble ranks of British character actors, and so even relatively minor roles lodge in the mind. Bonneville, for example, brings warmth and geniality to the role of Gloucester: not diverging hugely from his characterisation in Downton Abbey, it’s true, but offering a rare pillar of strength and reliability in a world where everyone is out for their own benefit. Whatever his wife’s ambitions, you felt that this Gloucester was true. Miles’s Somerset and Dunbar’s York circle one another like rival vultures, although their threat is of very different kinds: Somerset’s cloaked behind a silken smile; York’s frank and open at the end of a sword.
Their rivalry is given further grist in the form of Okonedo’s smart, belligerent Margaret: a woman who deserves a greater king to rule beside, and knows it. With the political nouse and ruthlessness that her husband so evidently lacks, Margaret must gather the reins in her own hands. Okonedo brought a pleasing hardness and purpose to the role: this Margaret isn’t some interfering harridan but a real warrior queen, who you can well imagine would be able to inspire her men. Finally, as the hapless king himself, Tom Sturridge did his best in a role that offers little meat to chew. Beautiful and otherworldly, his Henry was stranded in an age that simply wasn’t fit for him. There were times, I’ll admit, when I wondered how good Sturridge’s acting was, but I think he simply had a bit of a raw deal. Henry doesn’t get to do much except look innocent and occasionally express mild perplexity. And Sturridge mastered those two expressions perfectly.
There’s evidently been a lot of editing to fit the play into a two-hour slot (and there’ll be more in the next episode, as two plays are condensed into one), but the result is pacy and the story clear. Those who know the full play will doubtless find things to grumble about, but it works very well as an introduction. I was pleased to see that there seems to have been a boost in budget since the last series: we’re still not quite in Game of Thrones or War and Peace territory, but there are a few CGI shots and some good efforts at battle scenes that, due to clever editing, at least look as if there are more than twenty people fighting. The BBC have sometimes fallen back on the old solution of, ‘Have them run past the camera in single file and it’ll look as if there are more of them’, but all credit to them for making the best of their funding. The overall aesthetic has been likened to both Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones; the former because it’s all very atmospheric and dark, and the latter, I suspect, primarily due to the insane amount of plotting going on. Plus the fact that I, for one, can’t seen Anton Lesser without thinking, “Qyburn!”
The episode closed on a wonderfully foreboding note. The newly rebellious York returns home to his wife Cecily and his sons, who seem to do little except practice their swordwork in a manly and vigorous manner (evidently preparing for the next episode). In the only moment that felt slightly forced, York greets them each by name, “Edward! George! Edmund!”, each of the boys blond and smiling and well-grown. And then he calls, “Richard!” And from the courtyard, outlined against the sun, we see the fourth boy limping towards us, his hair unkempt, one shoulder higher than the other. He comes closer, and closer… and fade to black. I found myself grinning with anticipation.
To be honest, Henry VI never really appealed to me as a way to spend nine hours of my life, but in this compact form it’s succeeded in gripping my attention. Perhaps it’s time to give a little more love to the history plays, which I’ve traditionally avoided because they felt a bit too much like studying. Naturally I’ll report on the next two instalments of The Hollow Crown. There’s much to look forward to: seeing Margaret’s growth from scheming princess into warrior queen; watching Warwick play puppet-master with the throne; and finding out whether Tom Sturridge has more than two expressions. Exciting times.
HENRY VI: PARTS 2 AND 3
No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king at nine months old:
Was never subject long’d to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject!
(Henry, Henry VI: Part 2, Act IV, Scene 9)
Despite the title, the second episode of The Hollow Crown actually begins halfway through Part 2 of Henry VI. As I don’t know the play, I relied very heavily on my Complete Works to mark quotations that I wanted to come back to, and was startled to realise how much of the original has been cut. The remarkable thing is that the final edited version doesn’t feel pruned. On the contrary, the action barrels along, dense and urgent, and the screenwriters should be commended for creating a lithe narrative arc that has as much momentum as an episode of Game of Thrones. Yes, it’s already a hackneyed comparison, but this week as blood flowed, heads cut off and intrigues thickened, it was easy to see where the DNA of Westeros came from.
Things are not looking up for Henry VI. His overmighty subject the Duke of York continues in his rebellion, now aided by his grown sons Edward, George, Edmund and Richard. (Some years have passed since the first episode, and these four boys have morphed seamlessly into Geoffrey Streatfeild, Sam Troughton, Angus Imrie and Benedict Cumberbatch.) When York’s army defeats the king’s forces at the battle of St Albans, he rides straight to London where he dares to lay claim to the crown itself. Henry panics. He isn’t good at conflict – we’ve already seen him skulking around in the undergrowth during battles, terrified by the clash of blades and senseless slaughter – and yet he can’t bear to relinquish the crown. It is his raison d’être; more than that, it is a holy duty. Without a crown and a throne, what does a king become? And so Henry makes a pact with York. He will make York his heir, if he is allowed to keep the crown during his lifetime.
York agrees, but Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) is furious that her husband has given away the birthright of their only son, Ned. Okonedo does extremely well here, conveying the frustration of a woman who’s far more capable than her culture allows her to be. This production emphasises that by showing her leading the army in person, wielding a sword in battle and filling the place that her weak, uninspiring husband has left vacant. She and her loyal nobles attack York’s home, where they kill his son Edmund and then him, leaving his son Edward as the head of the Yorkist cause. Swayed this way and that by his desire for peace and his wife’s furious rhetoric, Henry crumbles under the strain of war and loses what few wits are left to him. Wandering alone in the desolate countryside, stripped of clothes and possessions like a latter-day Lear, he’s discovered by two shepherds who, seeing which way the wind blows, hand him in to Edward for safekeeping.
Margaret and her son Ned flee to France, and everything looks fair for Edward’s accession as Edward IV. His friend Warwick decides that a royal marriage will secure Edward’s position, and goes to France where he negotiates a match with Bona, sister of Louis XI (Andrew Scott – Moriarty!). All seems to be going well, but the carpet is pulled from under Warwick’s feet when he finds out that Edward IV has fallen in love with, and speedily married, the beautiful widow Elizabeth Woodville (Keeley Hawes). Louis is furious and Warwick offended at his king’s treatment. And so, stung to rebellion, Warwick transfers his loyalty to Margaret, Ned and the imprisoned Henry. More war; more blood; and yet an end must come. Edward IV’s forces triumph over Margaret; Ned is killed; and finally York’s heirs have a concrete grip on the realm. All credit must go to the editors for making dramatic sense of a very complicated situation.
The real treat in this episode was Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard. I say that not as a quivering puddle of womanhood but as an objective critic: the man is a fine Shakespearean and he has the charisma to shamelessly steal scenes with only the flick of an eyebrow. I admired his handling of the text when I saw his Hamlet and the same was true here. He quietly dominates the episode, patiently watching and waiting: he is more intelligent and more ruthless than his brother and he longs for a taste of greater power. Despite his limp and his hunchback, he’s a proven warrior. We see him fighting from horseback in battle and we see, too, that chivalry and nobility are foreign notions to him. When the Lancastrian snake is finally crushed in battle, it’s Richard who rides post-haste to London to do away with poor, half-forgotten Henry VI in the Tower.
He’s a new kind of man: a proto-Machiavellian master of realpolitik. And he wants us to join him on his journey to power: he, alone of all the characters, breaks the fourth wall. Towards the end of the episode, he suddenly looks into the camera and speaks directly to us, laying the ground for the soliloquies of the play to come. This sudden assumption of familiarity creates a jolt of empathy. Yes, Richard is a monster. He may smile sweetly at his brother, cradling his newborn nephew while already planning how to remove him from his path, but he is our monster. We are confidants and co-conspirators, spun into his web, and eager to see what happens next.