The ultimate symbol of power
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII
Dear friends and readers,
This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).
A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?
A father and son pair amid the carnage
But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”
From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)
More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.
Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose
To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)
What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love
Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.
A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet
So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.
Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.
Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king
The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).
The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.
Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts
Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.
I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).
Kyle Soller as Clifford
Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.
One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.
Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face
I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.
Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard
The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.
Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard
At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)
The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.
Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown
I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.