Monday, January 30, 2017

More Kings, More Turmoil: The Return of The Hollow Crown

Benedict Cumberbatch as King Richard III in The Hollow Crown.

Extending the British television series The Hollow Crown to include all the rest of Shakespeare’s history plays (except King John) is a boon for completists, perhaps. (PBS ran all three parts of Season 2 before the new year.) But moving from the Henriad, which covers the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, to the next chronological section, from the crowning of Henry VI to the crowning of Henry VII, is anti-climactic. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V are masterpieces, and Henry IV, Part 2 contains some great scenes, but the three parts of Henry VI, which Shakespeare wrote – or perhaps collaborated on – at the beginning of his career, aren’t very good plays. I applauded the first act of Ivo Von Hove’s Kings of War, which cut Henry VI to the bone and made it dramatically exciting; after sitting through Dominic Cooke’s version (from an adaptation by him and Ben Power), I admire it even more.

Cooke and Power do manage to get Henry IV down to two hours, reshaping three plays into two, and the first half is fairly watchable. It’s got Ben Miles as the bold, ambitious Somerset, who arranges young King Henry’s marriage to the French princess Margaret, whom he himself is sleeping with, and Hugh Bonneville as the true-blue, doomed Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Protector – two distinguished actors on their game. And it contains estimable contributions from Philip Glenister as Talbot, Samuel West as the Bishop of Winchester, Anton Lesser as Exeter and Adrian Dunbar as Richard Plantagenet (the Duke of York) – who tries and fails to usurp Henry’s throne but whose sons become Edward IV and Richard III. And at first Sophie Okonedo’s brooding tenderness in the role of Margaret is hypnotic. But Margaret begins as Somerset’s puppet, then comes into her own power when she weds King Henry, and by the time she and Gloucester’s wife Eleanor (Sally Hawkins), who cherishes her own dreams of queenship, are going at each other like feral cats, you’ve grown weary of her histrionics. Eleanor is led off to the Tower in chains, screaming all the way; the play has descended almost completely into melodrama, and there’s much more of it in Part 2

Cooke, who is really a stage director, doesn’t have much sense of rhythm, and no feeling at all for the battle scenes – which is too bad, since these are, after all, the War of the Roses plays. He shoots too close, he overdoes the gore, and the editing is messy and chaotic. When I read Henry VI in a graduate-school seminar, the only parts I liked were the Joan of Arc scenes in Part I and the scenes around Jack Cade and the peasants’ rebellion in Part 3. Unfortunately, Laura Morgan doesn’t do much with the role of Joan, and Cooke and Power cut Cade and the peasants. We’re not left with much. In the new Part 2, I liked Stanley Townsend as Warwick, and the scene where Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch) watches in horror from his hiding place while Clifford (Kyle Soller) kills his younger brother Rutland (Angus Imrie), too cowardly to step in and try to save him. The highlight is Cumberbatch’s reading of Richard’s two soliloquies, which feels like a warm-up for what he plans to do in Richard III

Tom Sturridge as King Henry VI and Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown.

The strange thing, though, is that Cumberbatch doesn’t turn out to be a great Richard III, though God knows he holds the camera and some of his line readings are remarkable. He plays the character too earnestly, courting Lady Anne (Phoebe Fox, the talented young actress who played Catherine in Von Hove’s A View from the Bridge) like the hero of a romance -- one that his withered hand and humpback have thus far put out of his reach -- and moved at having won her. Since Richard murdered her husband and is courting her over his coffin, in every other production I've seen he's amused, not affected, by his triumph. The plot tells us that Richard is a master manipulator, but his behavior in this version seems to be motivated less by an obsession with power than by fury at people he believes have undervalued him. That may be, somewhat presciently, a reading of the text for the Trump era, but it deprives the play of its wit. I’ve never thought that Richard III was a trenchant psychological study; it’s a chance for a master actor, whether Olivier in the 1955 movie or Ralph Fiennes in last summer’s production at the Almeida, to take the stage and wow the audience. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Cumberbatch is a master actor, but this approach leaves the audience distinctly unwowed. 

As a result, I found myself becoming more interested in some of the other characters – not mad Margaret (Okonedo chews even more scenery in Richard III than she did in the two parts of Henry VI), but Queen Elizabeth (the elegant, authoritative Keeley Hawes), and poor, deluded Hastings (James Fleet), who walks straight into Richard’s trap, and, briefly, Sam Troughton’s Clarence, frightened by nightmares in the Tower, and Luke Treadaway’s handsome, swashbuckling Richmond, who gets the throne away from Richard at the end. Judi Dench brings gravitas to the small role of the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother; she and Cumberbatch share a fine moment when, in response to a request for her blessing, she articulates the wish that he adopt the qualities he lacks, like meekness and true duty, and he registers silent recognition that he’s being censured rather than blessed. 

Some of Cooke’s directorial choices are utterly baffling, like amplifying the sound of Richard drumming his fingers on a chessboard. It goes on for what feels like a full ten minutes. Are we supposed to infer that the character is going out of his mind? I felt as if I were losing mine. Maybe I’ve just seen too many productions of Richard III in the last decade, but I could hardly wait for this one to end.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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