William Shakespeare might have been the world’s greatest playwright but he was not the world’s greatest historian, so it would be a mistake to watch this adaptation of Henry VI Parts I, II & III and Richard III in order to discover exactly what went on in the Wars of the Roses.
Shakespeare wrote to please the rulers of his time who would close plays down if they did not favour the Tudor dynasty and to appease the rowdy groundlings who munched their pies while the play went on and threw the crusts at the actors if there was not enough action or intrigue. The BBC Hollow Crown cycle was unashamedly produced and directed to fulfil the requirements of Elizabethan audiences. It is violent, bloody and heart-rending with characters full of hate, spite and guile and respects the playwright’s complete disregard for historical record or chronological sequence.
And so, having suspended my disbelief to an agonising extent during the initial stages, I put my groundling’s hat on and settled down to enjoy the drama and the spectacle, enjoying a wry smile at Laura Frances-Morgan’s Yorkshire accent as Joan of Arc, reminding myself that Joan was supposedly a country lass from Northern France if not the north of England, and greatly helped by Hugh Bonville as Gloucester who, against all my own historical leanings, turned out to be the most sympathetic character and nuanced performance of the whole cycle but who unfortunately met his grisly death at the end of the first episode.
He at least was permitted to play to his own age, unlike Sophie Okonedo who, as Margaret of Anjou, was required to progress from a fourteen-year-old bride to a ghostly fifty-plus at the final battle. While she never quite succeeded as the ingénue she perhaps should have been at the start, Okonedo’s performance in the latter stages was a masterly portrayal of Shakespeare’s ‘she-wolf’ version of Henry VI’s queen. On the other hand, Tom Sturridge as an excellent and vulnerable Henry VI barely appeared to age at all over the nearly thirty year stretch of history he occupied, climaxing his performance in a mental breakdown on the blood-soaked battlefield of Towton that was worthy of King Lear on the storm-wracked heath.
The third and last episode of The Hollow Crown was devoted to an almost complete rendition of Richard III, in which Benedict Cumberbatch fulfilled all the groundlings’ greatest desires as the misshapen, grudge-bearing, unrepentant, usurping murderer so loathed by present-day Ricardians, having clearly studied Laurence Olivier’s famous 1950’s film portrayal. Shakespeare’s introduction of Richard earlier in the cycle, at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, was one anomaly that truly skewed the historical record, as he would only have been nine years old at the time, but even more difficult to accept was Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character at that point not even as a teenager but as a very adult, hump-backed and physically-twisted two-faced arch-villain, who weirdly seemed to become younger and less disabled as the drama proceeded; by the time he fought to his death at Bosworth he was using his ‘withered’ left arm almost as readily as his right one. Having said that, his asides to the camera revealing the true evil of the usurper’s intentions were done with impressive subtlety and never allowed the viewer to cease believing in his utter ruthlessness. Ultimately the rhythmic tapping of his coronation ring orchestrating the crescendo of his paranoia was a brilliant touch of melodrama as the action degenerated into a mud-clogged battlefield conclusion.
For viewers who stuck with it, I think it unlikely that The Hollow Crown shed any light on the political maze of the Wars of the Roses but in the 400th anniversary of his death it will certainly have demonstrated Shakespeare’s extraordinary gift for creating credible drama out of half a century of historical crisis.
The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses is available for a short time on BBC iplayer. The DVD of the whole series is released on 20th June.
Joanna Hickson spent twenty-five years at the BBC writing and presenting for radio and television. Gripped by Shakespeare’s historical plays, Joanna began researching the King Henry V’s ‘fair Kate’ as a schoolgirl and the story of Catherine de Valois and the Tudor genesis has remained with her throughout life. Her latest book, Red Rose, White Rose, is out now.