The winter of his discontent

Hollow crown Richard III
Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard. Photo (c) BBC

 

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses – Richard III, BBC2 & iPlayer

So this is the moment – and the line – we’ve all been waiting for: Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, and “Now is the winter of our discontent…” We finally get to hear these famous words after a lingering tracking shot moving slowly round Richard’s naked torso as he plays chess. This is not however, a cheap shot to give the Cumberbatch fans a quick thrill – the shot shows us Richard’s twisted, humped, and deformed back. It’s a shot which is key to Cumberbatch’s performance, as a Richard whose mind has become more twisted than his spine through contemplation of his own deformity. There are moments when we can forget it (this is Cumberbatch after all) – Richard never can.

And we know this, because Richard tells us – he talks to us, not so much breaking the fourth wall as shattering it into a million pieces. A really great Richard will make an audience complicit in his crimes, will draw us in, and Cumberbatch does exactly that. This is what sets Richard apart from so many other characters – their soliloquies can be as much them talking to themselves as talking to us; with Richard there is no doubt. This gives us some great moments, especially Richard’s astonishment at his success with Lady Anne, and when he gives us/the camera a gleeful look after he’s fooled the mayor and aldermen of London into offering him the crown.

But if Cumberbatch gets Richard’s evil humour, he’s also very good at showing Richard’s disintegration, especially in the scenes after he has achieved his ambition, and the crown is on his head, and he realises it has made him neither happy nor content – or even secure on this throne.

But if Richard is the play’s (black) heart, then surely the female characters are its soul. This series has been characterised by great female roles and performances, and here we finally arrive at the motherload, with the appearance of Judi Dench as Richard’s mother. It’s (of course) a magnificent performance, with just enough hints of the part Richard’s mother may have had in twisting Richard’s personality. She’s joined by returnees Keeley Hawes (excellent again) and Sophie Okonedo (just brilliant). Okonedo’s Margaret is (I think) the only character who has appeared in every episode of this series, the only continuing thread to link them all together. Without the earlier plays, in this she might just be a random mad woman, but in context she helps to make a point about the corrosive effect of the power struggles the history plays depict. She’s given a beefed up role at the end of play here, appearing to guide Richard through his pre-battle nightmare, and even hovering over his death throes. Purists may disapprove, but for me it worked, helping to tie the whole sequence together.

The final battle, when it comes, is suitably impressive. If some of the battle scenes in this series have looked a little small-scale, it was presumably because they’d blown the budget on this one (we got our first sighting of archers for a start). Perhaps this was mean to suggest that this was a battle of a different and more decisive nature. In which case, it’s probably also symbolic that in the end it comes down to Cumberbatch and Richmond (Luke Treadaway, excellent but unfeasibly handsome) slugging it out in the mud, from which Cumberbatch has just delivered the play’s other great famous line (“A horse, a horse…” etc) and managed to do it so well that you almost forgot that it was a famous line.

Shakespeare – a man who knew which side his bread was buttered on – ends the play with a Tudor-propaganda speech by the new Henry VII about uniting the country. This series gives us a more sombre closing, transporting us back from court to the battle field, where Margaret stands amid the corpses, reminding us of the hollowness of victory – and the crown itself.

 

The rise of Richard

Hollow Crown Richard
Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

 

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses – Henry VI Part 2, BBC 2 & iPlayer

So, the Cumberbatch cometh… after that tantalising glimpse at the end of last week’s opening episode, this week we finally get to see the performance which social media has been getting wound up about for weeks, if not months. However, as it’s a while into the play before we get the full Richard – so to speak – we’ll come back to him in a moment.

This play is (even) more brutal and bloody than last week’s. So brutal in fact that one of my favourites from last week, Ben Miles’ Somerset, is despatched via decapitation  within the first ten minutes. While he may have been a ruthless bastard, Shakespeare gives him a great death scene, with the line ‘true nobility is exempt from fear’, and Miles does it beautifully. Note to casting directors: this man would make for a very interesting Macbeth.

The loss of Somerset does give another great moment to my other favourite from last week, Sophie Okonedo’s Queen Margaret. For me, the point at which she realises Somerset is dead (after his decapitated head is thrown into her lap; I told you this episode was brutal) is the point at which she flips – the point at which she becomes ‘the she-wolf of France’. This title is hurled at her by Adrian Dunbar’s Duke of York (another excellent performance in a series is full of them) during the scene in which she tortures and then kills him – Okonedo is absolutely mesmerising, and utterly terrifying.

Hollow Crown Margaret
Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret. Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

 

Consolation for the loss of Ben Miles’ Somerset (for me, very definitely not for Margaret) comes in the arrival of Geoffrey Streatfeild (yes, that is really how his name is spelt) as Edward of York/Edward IV. I somewhat fell for this actor after seeing him in the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (see here) so it was very nice to welcome him to this particular party. I loved the scene in which he falls for and woos Keeley Hawes’ Elizabeth. Two notes on this scene: One – this is apparently Keeley Hawes’ Shakespeare debut but you can’t tell, she’s very good, especially in this exchange, where she and Streatfeild spark off each other beautifully. Two – why does nobody nowadays ever use the line ‘I tell thee plain I wish to lie with thee’ as a pick-up line? (Asking for a friend…)

So, we turn to the Cumberbatch question: Can he really live up to the hype? Well, yes, actually. His performance as Richard is not only good but commendably subtle. A lesser actor would have found it hard to resist the temptation to go in full ‘bottled spider’ from the beginning, but Cumberbatch’s performance allows us to see Richard’s development, from the terrified child watching his brother being murdered (savour this part, as it’s pretty much the last time you’ll see any true humanity from Richard, in a way that perhaps parallels Margaret’s reaction to Somerset’s death) to the ruthless crown-snatcher we all know and love by the end. (Talking of subtle, that other Sherlock alumni Andrew Scott also resists the temptation to chew the scenery with his understated King Louis of France).  In his soliloquy revealing his intentions towards the end of the play, Cumberbatch conveys not only Richard’s cruelty and ruthlessness but especially with the line ‘I have no brother, I am like no brother… I am myself alone’, his pain at his outsider status, the ugly one out of step with this handsome family.

However, while our attention may be on the future Richard III, in this episode it’s still Henry’s name in the title.  Tom Sturridge turns in another good performance, his Henry by turns irritating and Christ-like (although I was briefly distracted at one point by his very hairy chest!). You got the feeling that his eventual murder (by Richard, obviously) came as something of a relief, so unsuited was he to the role of king.

So, this week’s episode ends as the last one did, with a glimpse into the future – in this case, Richard holding his baby nephew, and looking with lingering evil into the camera. The winter of his discontent is coming…

Let battle commence

Hollow Crown henry and margaret
Tom Sturridge as Henry VI and Sophie Okonedo as Margaret.  Photo (C) Robert Viglasky/BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd

 

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI Part 1, BBC2 and iPlayer

 

It’s rare that I write about a production of Shakespeare and feel the need to start with the warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS. But here, we are dealing with obscure Shakespeare – early, and rarely performed. Perhaps for this reason (or perhaps because the BBC was worried about the attention span of its audiences) a fairly severe scalpel job has been done. I don’t know the Henry VI plays well (does anyone?) but a quick check of my Complete Works reveals that this film actually takes us through Shakespeare’s Part 1 and into Part 2, all within an hour and fifty minutes.

While purists may baulk (especially as the opening speech, delivered in voiceover by the unmistakeable Judi Dench, actually comes from Troilus and Cressida) but it does make for an evening’s entertainment that feels fast-paced but not rushed. That’s not to say that this production is flawless. I found the captions at the beginning irritating and unnecessary, particularly the one which told us we were in France – which followed a scene in which the characters told us they were going to France, and a shot of a ship. I could also have done without the swelling music, which was often intrusive. Having recently seen various Royal Shakespeare Company productions of history plays, the literal medieval setting felt slightly old-fashioned compared to their stripped-back aesthetic, but that’s probably an inevitable consequence of translating the plays to TV, where the suspension of disbelief works differently.

In the end, these are minor quibbles, because with a cast like this, everything else eventually faces into the background.  Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret deserves first mention, for a fabulous performance, which develops the queen’s character beautifully. In one of her earliest scenes, the way her eyes flicker between her father and the Duke of Somerset, and these two men decide her fate, speaks volumes about her character’s later motivations. I can’t wait to see what Okonedo does with the character as she appears in Henry VI part 3 – the only bit of the trilogy I have any real knowledge of. Incidentally, there have been a few comments about the temerity of casting a black woman in Shakespeare – to these people I say: it’s 2016, grow up.

One of the great joys of seeing these plays revived is that they have some great female roles – in addition to Queen Margaret we saw Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc and Sally Hawkins as the ambitious, witchcraft-practising  Duchess Eleanor, both doing a sterling job.

For the boys, I’d give the main laurels to Ben Miles, as a wonderfully ruthless, sleazy but still sexy Somerset, (part of the edit of the plays is to conflate the characters of Somerset and Suffolk, the actual historical figure accused of being the Queen’s lover).  Hugh ‘Downton Abbey’ Bonneville has featured heavily in the publicity for the show, and while he was effective as Gloucester, the king’s uncle, I would have liked to have seen a bit more steel in his characterisation. It was interesting that the other stand-out performances came from what you might call ‘old stagers’: Anton Lesser, managing to convey the horror of Joan’s execution at the stake with a single flinch, or Samuel West, giving his best ‘bishop of dubious Christianity’. From the younger generation, Tom Sturridge does a good job as poor unworldly Henry, more interested in praying than fighting, and Max Bennett makes a lot of a very brief appearance as the doomed John Talbot.

Of course, for many, the interest in these plays is what they lead up to – Richard III. The approach taken to this film allowed it to end with a very clever coup de theatre, as a crooked figure hobbled toward the camera in silhouette. This closing image forewarns us of the horrors to come, and reminds us once again that power does not bring happiness or contentment  –  the crown is still hollow.

Out there

ash dome
David Nash’s Ash Dome

 

Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature, BBC4

Dr James Fox is not someone I’d pictured as a hiker. Strolling through art galleries, certainly, wandering elegantly through picturesque city streets, absolutely. But not hiking. Yet here he is, in his latest programme Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature, on BBC4 (and iPlayer) striding out across moors, fields and mountains, seemingly taking it all in his stride.

The new outdoorsy Dr Fox has not however abandoned his love for art – but he has abandoned galleries to give us a glimpse of art which uses the natural world as its canvas and materials. This is art that, although it’s modern, often goes back to some of our earliest cultural acts – the manipulation of landscape begun by our Neolithic ancestors.

The first work of art the programme considers, David Nash’s amazing ‘Ash Dome’, takes us right back to that time, reminding me of ancient henge monuments (many of which were constructed out of wood, Stonehenge being so-named because it was relatively unusual). But rather than dead logs, this ‘henge’ is created out of living trees, which the artist continues to tend and shape to this day – the work was started in 1977, before my birth, as an act of faith in an uncertain future.

From here we move on to other areas of nature- first fields, then coasts, where we meet Julie Brook as she constructs a ‘Firestack’: a stone tower, built on the margins of land, holding a fire which is eventually extinguished by the rising tide – a totally bonkers idea, you might well think, but the result is so mesmerically beautiful, it suddenly seems to make sense. In a well-shot and edited programme, the sequence which showed the fire burning and eventually quenched was a stand-out – especial kudos for not over-using the drone shots. Well done, producer/director Ben Harding and team.

One of the many joys of this being a programme about modern art, is that we get to hear from the artists, and to begin to understand them better. However much you think you do not understand modern art, or even if you believe you despise modern art, I defy you not to be moved by the sight of artist Andy Goldsworthy when the dry stone tower he has painstakingly built up against the skeleton of a tree collapses, again. His whole posture is a perfect illustration of quiet despair.

From there, we head out onto the moors, and more hiking for Dr Fox, as he re-creates an artist’s ten-mile walk in a perfectly straight line across the moor. I imagine the BBC risk assessment for this one must have been interesting: “Well, there’s a chance we might lose the presenter in a bog, but it is in the name of art – can we get insurance cover for that?” However, he survives intact – so much in fact, does the hiking suit him that I kept being reminded of the passage in Pride & Prejudice where Mr Darcy’s admiration of Elizabeth Bennett is increased when her ‘fine eyes’ are ‘brightened by exercise.’

Leaving aside that small piece of objectification… I first came across James Fox when he presented A History of Art in Three Colours, (another BBC4 programme), which was first shown in 2012. That particular series has remained a favourite of mine ever since, although this programme might just supplant it. While some of this is down to the subject matter, a lot of it has to do with his qualities as a presenter – he’s like a very good cappuccino: warm and soothing without being bland or soporific, and the programmes he presents reflect this beautifully. If I ever feel the need of a little solacing art, but don’t have the time or inclination to drag myself to an art gallery, a little James Fox will generally do the trick…

Add to this brilliant camerawork and perfect editing (the chocolate sprinkles on the cappuccino, to push the metaphor to its limit) and this programme will more than reward the hour of your time it requires. Find it on iPlayer.