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.