mon 17/06/2024

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III, BBC Two

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III, BBC Two

Benedict Cumberbatch chills in a notably bleak account of Shakespeare's crook-backed king

Man on a mission: Benedict Cumberbatch as a ruined and ruinous Richard IIIall photos: BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd/Robert Viglasky

Benedict Cumberbatch, it turns out, was born to play the blasted, blighted Richard III, as one might expect from an actor whose long-term apprenticeship to both classical theatre and television converged to bring the BBC's Hollow Crown series to a surpassingly bleak if potent finish.

Those who associate Shakespeare's "bottled spider" with various excuses through the years for overindulgence and/or camp got instead a portrait of gathering psychosis that was considerably more biting and bitter than has generally been true of this play of late. Along the way, its visual command confirmed director Dominic Cooke as a screen natural, should this gifted theatre director (his National revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom remains the London stage highlight of the year so far) choose to segue to the cinema, as many of this series' other directors have already done. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard IIIFrom its title character's opening soliloquy through to a climactic image suggesting the charnel house of history, Cooke carved a compelling visual path through adaptor Ben Power's deftly filleted version of a particularly single-minded play that here used a chessboard as a cunning visual motif. No less apt was the repeated sight of Richard's fingers tapping nervously, the agitation an aural prefigurement of that famous horse without which Richard has no kingdom and no life. (Credit, too, to the dusky elegance of Zac Nicholson's cinematography.) 

And because Cumberbatch by now is so thoroughly marinated in the demands of celluloid, he easily scaled back a potentially OTT character to become someone shiveringly, compulsively real: not a caricature of malignity but a master class in it. 

Using the camera as his ally the way a stage Richard III might work the audience, Cumberbatch caught to an unusual degree the physical and psychic pain that drives this merciless monarch-in-waiting on. As Cooke panned during the play's self-identifying first speech across Richard's bare, burdensome flesh, one clocked his gentle mockery of the word "summer" alongside a seductive tone incapable of fully concealing its speaker's scars. Indeed, this was the rare Richard in my experience to let slip the possibility that this malformed malcontent may somewhere along the way have shed a few tears, however much the play sends him hurtling forward on a collision course with conscience.

And no doubt helped by his stage success playing the Janus-faced Frankenstein and his monster, Cumberbatch nailed both Richard's instinctual charm (extolling, for instance, the strawberries in the garden of the doomed Bishop of Ely) within minutes of his fists throbbing in fervid anticipation of Tyrrell's murder of the young princes in the tower. This Richard existed not in the ramped-up vaudevillian tradition of Mark Rylance or the showman proffered famously by Antony Sher, but as a savage miscreant arguing his case before a largely unsympathetic human race.

Judi Dench in The Hollow CrownFew Shakespeare plays contain as many choice imprecations as Richard III, their feral range handled thrillingly this time out by an eclectic cast that coupled Shakespearean newbies (Keeley Hawes for one, playing a quietly steely Elizabeth) with a matchless veteran in Judi Dench (pictured above left) as a "woe-wearied" Duchess of York, aka Richard's mum, who has seen more than any matriarch would think possible. Threaded through proceedings which she brought to a sad-eyed close was the ravaged personage of Sophie Okonedo's Queen Margaret, the actress's expert work here of a piece with her comparably bereft Elizabeth Proctor in the current Broadway revival of The Crucible.

Prime moments from the men included Ben Daniels's baleful Buckingham blowing Richard a toxic kiss by way of farewell and Geoffrey Streatfeild, whose fleeting moments as Edward IV included the lingering comment "the order was reversed", as if in summary recognition of the disorder and darkness of a Richard who was seen tumbling to a mud-spattered, rain-soaked death. The water droplets served as one last reminder of The Hollow Crown's scarily full acquaintanceship with blood. 

This was the rare Richard III to let slip the possibility that this malformed malcontent may somewhere along the way have shed a few tears


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Always love reading war of the Roses.Benedict is a brilliant actor who brought it to l8fe.

The author really used a thesaurus on this article. 


Fabulous series brought to a stunning climax by a mesmerising Cumberbatch and the rest of the superb cast. Brilliant.


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