*. I’ve always heard, and read, that Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, though rarely studied even in advanced Shakespeare seminars, were good theatre. Until now, however, I’ve never been able to put that to the test for the simple reason that they’re not often produced. With this BBC production of what’s called the first tetralogy (the Henry VI plays plus Richard III), it seemed I would finally get my chance.
*. Well, I came away impressed. This was great TV. My only reservation is that it’s a free adaptation of the source material. In making it a viewer-friendly, contemporary political thriller (they were aiming to make it “as dynamic and accessible as possible”) a lot of Shakespeare gets left behind, and much of what’s left is transformed. Inevitable? Yes. Responsibly done? Yes. But this is Shakespeare for the twenty-first century.
*. That much would need to be cut was obvious. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play. Henry VI Part 2 has his largest cast of characters. Something, quite a bit actually, was going to have to give. Henry VI Part 1, for example, comes in at just under an hour. Speeches that go on for dozens of lines are radically pruned to go with a modern editing style. None of Kenneth Branagh’s long takes here! Well, there is one good long take in Richard III as Richard and Elizabeth go walking through the woods together, but I think that was it.
*. The trimming even stretches to a streamlining of the cast, with the characters of Sussex and Somerset, not minor players, being mostly combined into a single figure (Ben Miles, as Somerset). I don’t suppose many people notice this, since I don’t think many people know the plays that well, but it confused me quite a bit.
*. Some cuts are obvious. I don’t think modern audiences can accept speeches that go on for pages. Or take the scene where Henry watches a son mourn his father on the battlefield and a father mourn his son. Anyone seeing that today would likely find it horribly artificial in its formal balance. And so we only get the son who has killed his father. In much the same way the ghosts appearing to both Richard and Richmond, offering up alternating curses and blessings, is almost always cut down to just show the ghosts telling Richard to despair and die.
*. I think in other places the cuts may make us feel a bit shortchanged. In Henry VI Part 1, for example, the conflict between Talbot and Joan of Arc gets short shrift. Talbot’s only big scene remaining is his death at the side of his son, and Joan (who is actually shown killing Talbot) has lost her demons and become a real saint, even going full Falconetti when burned at the stake.
*. Is that being politically correct, or just another nod to realism and authenticity? Seeing as these plays make a hash of history anyway I don’t think there’s much need for it. For example, Eleanor was banished years before Margaret came to England. That cat-fight stuff is in there just because Shakespeare knew it would play well.
*. Another nod to greater realism (or whatever you want to call it) is getting rid of almost all the asides and soliloquies from the Henry VI plays. It won’t do to have actors talking directly to the camera. Of course, this is a decision that had to be jettisoned when the series comes to Richard III, which is built around Richard’s confiding in the audience.
*. I’m all for colour-blind casting, but did they really want to have Sophie Okonedo playing the villainous Margaret, a character who is, to my eye, a close cousin to the ethnic witch Tamora from Titus Andronicus? That doesn’t seem very progressive. Still, it’s a great part.
*. I give Tom Sturridge a lot of credit. Henry VI is a difficult part. The historical Henry VI wasn’t a very impressive figure, by most accounts, and in the play he’s a type of the “holy king” at best (which wasn’t the best kind of king to be) or a dim wimp at worst. Ralph Fiennes played him once and was mainly concerned about his appearing “a weak, dithering fool.” A comic figure even. This is always a danger, but Sturridge really makes Henry believable and sympathetic. No mean feat. I only thought his transformation into Gollum a bit much.
*. Sturridge and Okonedo at least have the luxury of working alone. There aren’t that many performances of Margaret and Henry that audiences would have to compare them to, and almost none on film. Benedict Cumberbatch (a second cousin sixteen times removed of Richard) is playing in a different league, in the shadow of Olivier and McKellen.
*. Physically he’s more grotesque than either, and the opening shot of his naked, deformed back sets the tone. Producer Sam Mendes remarks on the “making of” featurette that “I don’t think you’ve seen Richard with his shirt off.” The prosthetics apparently took over three hours to put on and they add to that sense of realism I’ve mentioned already, going with the mudbowl Battle of Bosworth Field (mud = realism for any depiction of medieval life) and all the shooting on location.
*. One thing about Cumberbatch’s performance that’s really smart is not trying to re-invent the role. He’s very good, but aside from the scene of his naked back it’s not a star turn. If anything he plays some of the hamminess of the role down. What I came away liking best were quiet moments, like his observing Edward and Clarence falling out.
*. Stanley Townsend as Warwick made me think of Brian Blessed. How could you not be reminded of the guy who would naturally fit into that role in the past? Shakespeare had a stable company, and perhaps something of that consistency of players continues into the present day.
*. I started off saying that this is great TV. The hooks at the end of each part reveal a professional showrunner’s sense of timing. There is an attempt made throughout to emphasize a strong through narrative line that works quite well. It’s a treat to see Richard as a character following a real arc.
*. Some of the adaptations made by Ben Power and Dominic Cooke work very well. The death of Clifford, for example, involves wholly made-up scenes between Clifford and Richard and then Clifford and Henry, with both of the latter figures declining to finish him off, though for sharply contrasting reasons. Richard wants him to suffer while Henry can’t because violence sickens him. That’s not in Shakespeare, but it’s a nice touch.
*. Critics made the obvious connection to Game of Thrones, which may be putting the cart before the horse by more than four centuries. I certainly enjoyed these versions a lot more than the old BBC adaptations back when I was in school. Though those products were more faithful, I think perhaps because they were intended partly as study aids.
*. So if you’re looking for the language you may feel shortchanged at times. The dispute in the garden, where the business of the red and white roses is first introduced, often makes reference to the flowers as “dumb [mute] significants.” In this version the line just before the dumb significants line is kept, as is the one after. But dumb significants is lost. A dumbing down? I don’t think so, but it’s an evolution.