PBS Great Performances: ‘The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses’ ✭✭✭✭✭

“The Hollow Crown” returns to PBS with Benedict Cumberbatch as one of Shakespeare’s best known villains: Richard III. The period prior to the infamous Henry VIII is rich with Richards and Henrys (three each), murders and betrayals, but Richard III’s rapid ascent to the throne is perhaps the most famous. The series airs beginning on Dec. 11 (“Henry VI Part 1”), continues on Dec. 18 (“Henry VI Part 2”) and ends with on Dec. 25 with “Richard III.”

If you missed the 2012 first series, the title  comes from another Richard. In Act 3, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” Richard II has returned from Ireland to find that he has lost England. Instead of becoming angry, he turns philosophical, saying:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

“Richard II,” with Ben Whishaw in the title role, begins the first cycle of “The Hollow Crown,” in which an indecisive and abruptly arbitrary king is replaced by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear). The crown doesn’t rest easily on this Henry’s head in “Henry IV” where Jeremy Irons plays an older Henry. While Henry IV is a somber man of war and scheming courtiers, his son, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is more concerned with pleasure. Yet in “Henry V,” the Prince Hal is a responsible young king who dies in France, leaving a young French wife and an infant son who will become Henry VI.

The first cycle is more romantically pensive. It begins with a willful, spoiled man, Richard II, who matures and becomes both philosophical and poetic in captivity before he is mistakenly murdered by subjects loyal to the new king. It ends with Prince Hal, having cast off his irresponsible ways, as a man of action awkwardly romancing a French princess, Katherine (Mélanie Thierry). Yet this love match is short-lived. Henry V dies beautiful and unmarred during a war abroad, but not in battle. “The Hollow Crown” begins “Henry V” with a funeral to bookend the story of this fallen king.

Where Series 1 of “The Hollow Crown” had three different directors (Rupert Goold for “Richard II,” Richard Eyre for “Henry IV, Part I” and “Henry IV, Part II,” and Thea Sharrock for “Henry V”), Series 2, “The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses,”  had one director: Dominic Cooke. “Henry VI” becomes two parts instead of three and “Richard III,” Shakespeare’s second longest play after “Hamlet,” is the third part of the trilogy.

In “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” Henry V’s son, Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) has grown into a young ineffectual man, dependent on his regent, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville), the Lord Protector of England, and about to unwisely wed Margaret (Sophie Okonedo). “Henry VI, Part I” is about the betrayal of a young, gentle, fatherless king.

The real Henry VI ascended to the throne at nine months and becomes king of France when Charles VI, his grandfather, died. His claim to the French throne was challenged by Charles VII in a conflict that pre-dated his birth (the Hundred Years War, 1337-1453).

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V makes two contracts that will be broken in Part II. His subject Richard of York (Adrian Dunbar) captures Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who has been leading the French army. Richard burns her at the stake. Henry V, urged by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, settles for peace. He makes Charles his viceroy, but Charles is already forming plans to expel the English.

Suffolk (Jason Watkins) entices Henry VI to marry Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo) by describing her beauty. Gloucester opposes the match for practical reasons: Margaret doesn’t have a rich influential family. Unknown to both Gloucester and King Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou is the lover of the Earl of Suffolk. Together, Margaret and Suffolk plot to take over the court. The court is already caught up in the conflict between Richard Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar) and the Duke of Somerset (Ben Miles). Various courtiers are asked to show their support by choosing roses. The red rose was the House of Lancaster. The white rose was the House of York.

In “Henry VI, Part II,” Queen Margaret questions the need for a Lord Protector. Not only does Gloucester step down, but his wife is accused and convicted as a witch. Without Gloucester, King Henry VI cannot quell the bickering between his courtiers and the country descends into the War of the Roses. “Henry VI, Part II” also looks at the chaotic, capricious nature of battles and the rule of kings. Historically, Henry VI has two separate reigns (1422-1461 and 1470 to 1471) as king of England and one as the disputed king of France (1422 to 1453).

Although victorious, Richard Plantagenet, the third Duke of York (white rose), doesn’t become king. He is, however, the father of two kings. His son Edward briefly reigns as Edward IV (Geoffrey Streatfeild) before his other son becomes Richard III.

“Richard III” begins with a study of this man’s malformed spine and ribs before we see his face.

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

To become king, Richard III first plots to kill his brother older Clarence and to marry  Anne Neville, who was the widow of King Edward IV, the only son of Henry VI (with Margaret of Anjou). The marriage between Anne and Edward was an alliance to the House of Lancaster.

News of Clarence’s murder hastens the ill King Edward IV’s death. But Richard has convinced his brother Edward to name him protector of Edward IV’s two sons, the new child king Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury.  The children are murdered and Richard III (Benedict Cumberbatch) who becomes king. Now the once arrogant Queen Margaret reappears, this time, old, bitter and weary and predicting the fate of all like a Cassandra.

In the end, “The War of the Roses” is about the rise of Richard III and the conditions that allowed such a tyrant to come into power. In the beginning, he is a background figure, but he slowly moves forward seizing opportunities. Cumberbatch’s Richard is a grasping young man who dies at 32 (Cumberbatch is 40), more a product of his time and circumstances than evil incarnate that Ian McKellen was in the 1995 feature film.

To court Anne Neville, Cumberbatch’s Richard III depends more upon Cumberbatch’s charisma unlike the roaring intimidation of Al Pacino’s Richard in the 1996 study of the play “Looking for Richard”  (with Winona Ryder as a frail and frightened Anne). “The Hollow Crown” is a more satisfying interpretation of Shakespeare than the recent staging of “Hamlet” (National Theatre Live Fathom Event) in which Cumberbatch is the titular character.

Laurence Olivier’s 1955 “Richard III” death scene is melodramatic and dated. Ian McKellen’s Richard literally falls into a hellish inferno. Cumberbatch’s Richard dies during a heavy rain, slipping down in the mud.

The hero of “Richard III,” is the victorious Henry VII (Luke Treadaway) the first Tudor king, the man who united the House of Lancaster with the House of York. More importantly, he was the father of the infamous Henry VIII and the grandfather of the ruling monarch of Shakespeare’s day, Queen Elizabeth I.

Many of the scenes are filmed on location, in castles where the events actually took place, adding to the authenticity of the atmosphere.

“Henry VI, Part One” broadcasts on Dec. 11 (Sunday), at 9 p.m. on PBS.

“Henry VI, Part Two” broadcasts on Dec. 18 (Sunday) at 9 p.m.

“Richard III” broadcasts on Dec. 25, 9 p.m. All should be available online after the initial broadcast at PBS.org. The full series is already available on DVD.

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