Monday, December 26, 2016

The Hollow Crown: “Richard III” (BBC-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a really bizarre choice for a Christmas telecast: PBS’s broadcast (under the Great Performances rubric) of a BBC version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, originally shot as part of a seven-episode miniseries called The Hollow Crown that started in 2012 with productions of the first four plays in Shakespeare’s cycle about the Wars of the Roses and the tumult they caused in 15th century British royal history. The BBC had originally done this in 1960 as a 15-part miniseries called An Age of Kings, not only a touchstone in the history of Shakespeare on film but an important career boost for the young Scottish actor Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1 and became an international star and icon of “cool” playing James Bond in the first Bond theatrical film, Dr. No, in 1962. Part of the problem with the eight-play cycle is that Shakespeare wrote the first four plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) after he wrote the second four (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III), and it’s clear he’d dramatically improved as a playwright — indeed, there’s legitimate question (as opposed to the illegitimate conspiracy-mongering that “Shakespeare” was really the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe or Queen Elizabeth or whoever) as to how much of the Henry VI plays are actually Shakespeare’s work. Henry VI, Part 1 exists in printed versions before Shakespeare’s emergence as a theatre manager and playwright in 1580’s London, and when I read it I concluded that only one scene — the one in which the rival claimants of the throne from the houses of Lancaster and York are in a garden and pick red and white roses, respectively, as their symbols — is Shakespeare’s work. (Not only does it not appear in pre-Shakespeare versions of the play, but the writing is far better than anything else in the script and has the quiet dignity and strength that are Shakespeare’s hallmark.)

Apparently the BBC conflated the three Henry VI plays into two episodes and then did Richard III as an episode of its own — but PBS went straight into Richard III and ignored the Henry VI material even though there’s a “Previously, on … ” segment at the beginning of Richard III showing bits of the two previous episodes. I had problems with some of the earlier episodes of The Hollow Crown — particularly an overly stiff mode of presentation (the sort of thing that treats Shakespeare as High Literature and thereby gives him a bad name) and some tastelessly gory visuals — but the gory visuals aren’t so much of a problem here — Richard III is about a psychopathic killer, after all — and the line delivery by most of the cast is naturalistic and credible. Basically it’s a tour de force for the two best-known actors in the cast, Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (he’s now played two roles associated with Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes and Richard III) and Judi Dench as Cecily, widow of Richard, Duke of York and mother of Richard III, his predecessor Edward IV (Geoffrey Streatfield) and the hapless George, Duke of Clarence (Sam Troughton, whose grandfather Patrick Troughton played murderer James Tyrrell in Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Richard III). Dench played Princess Catherine of France, wife of Henry V, in An Age of Kings and is therefore the only actor I know of, of either gender, who appeared in both these BBC miniseries based on Shakespeare’s history plays. Cumberbatch is introduced by director Dominic Cooke in a chilling scene in which we see him naked from the waist up as he delivers the famous opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York) and we get to see his hunchback (CGI, I suspect, since an appliance would have been too obvious without clothes to cover it up). Cumberbatch is everything you’d want in an actor playing Richard III: oily, smarmy, able to keep up (for the most part) the appearance of sanity and sagacity but really seething with homicidal rage inside and all too eager to order the killing of anyone who crosses him, including former allies like the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Daniels), who helps mastermind Richard’s rise to the throne and helps get Edward IV’s children and the presumed royal heirs, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, declared illegitimate so Richard can leapfrog over them and become king — but balks at killing the kids and is therefore executed himself on Richard’s order.

Cooke gives the play an excellent Gothic atmosphere and Ben Power delivers a quite good script — though for some odd reason he suggests that the nighttime visitations Richard has before the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field, in which the ghosts of all the people he killed reappear before him in his dream and tell him to “despair and die,” were actually illusions engineered by Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo), widow of Lancastrian King Henry VI, with a little hand mirror that seems to freak out Richard every time he sees it. What’s more, while he depicts Henry Tudor, second Earl of Richmond and eventually Richard’s killer and successor as King Henry VII, as the unambiguous hero Shakespeare wrote (while Henry VII’s granddaughter Elizabeth was on the throne), Power denies him the speech in which he says the ghosts of Richard’s victims visited him on the eve of the battle and wished him a speedy victory. (One major inaccuracy in Shakespeare’s script has Henry declaring a general amnesty after he defeats Richard and wins the crown at Bosworth Field; instead he back-dated his reign to begin the day before the battle so he could hold anyone who had fought for Richard to have been a traitor — which in practice meant they had to appeal to him on a case-by-case basis and beg for forgiveness.) Power’s script emphasizes the role of the avenging women — Cecily, Margaret and Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth Woodville (Keeley Hawes) — not only in organizing the resistance to Richard but going out of their way to confront him and freak him out. Charles said that after the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election Richard III played quite differently than it would have before the election (or if Hillary Clinton had won); though no one (at least as far as I know) has claimed that Donald Trump had any of his political or business opponents murdered, he’s certainly an unscrupulous opportunist with a questionable claim on sanity and he’s surrounded himself with people whose main qualification seems to be blind loyalty rather than talent. The last time Charles and I watched Richard III (as the last two episodes of An Age of Kings, with Paul Daneman as a superb Richard) I wrote, “[W]hat makes Richard III as Shakespeare wrote it a fitting end to the eight-play cycle is, once again, Shakespeare’s greatest strength as a dramatist: not his genius as a poet nor his talent for dramatic structure, but his understanding of human nature and his ability to depict common human ‘types’ that have hardly changed from his day to ours; though both the real Richard III’s life and Shakespeare’s depiction of it came long before Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein lived, there were parts of this play that reminded me of all of them!”