A few years ago the BBC adapted Shakespeare’s first four canonical histories Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V under the collective title of The Hollow Crown, and a little while after that I reviewed each installment as part of my ongoing Brush Up Your Shakespeare series. Well, the BBC recently decided to pick up where they left off, adapting the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, in what they’re calling The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, even though there was only one war, which seems to me like pretty basic history, but hey, I’m not a big shot television producer.
The Hollow Crown: Henry VI, Part 1
The Plot: Following the untimely death of the great king Henry V, the freshly conquered France rebels once again, and Henry’s successor, Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) operates as best he can without a clue and under the watchful eye of the Lord Protector Humphrey (Hugh Bonneville). Meanwhile, the seeds of civil strife are sewn as Richard Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar) discovers his own claim to throne, and divides Henry’s lords with the question of his right to succession. Led by the loyalist but greedy Duke Somerset (Ben Miles), Henry’s lords connive to take down Richard, the good Duke Humphrey, and France.
Every press release I’ve seen for this new installment of The Hollow Crown has contained two noteworthy admissions: first, that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s least popular works; and second, that if you use your imagination, this could totally just be Game of Thrones, right guys? Although advertised as part of the BBC’s commemoration of the Bard’s 400th deathday, the showrunners seem much more concerned with drawing an audience than with creating a faithful adaption. What they are calling Henry VI, Part 1 is actually an adaptation of both Part 1 and Part 2. The runtime clocks in at an hour and fifty minutes. I reckon, by my reading, Part 1 should run close to two and a half hours by itself and Part 2 probably just about two hours. So, if my math serves me (and admittedly it chooses to do so only on sparse occasions), that means they’ve cut out well over fifty percent. What remains is the briefest and most staccato adaptation imaginable, and certainly does no favors to the legacy of these plays.
I’ll level with ya: Henry VI, Part 1 is among my top fifteen favorite Shakespeare plays. Part 3 is in my top ten. They are fabulous. The reason they’re never performed or adapted isn’t because they’re bad, it’s because they’re really long and extremely complicated. The politics are dense; there’s a massive cast of characters; most of them are named either Henry, Edward, Richard, or George; they all have multiple names and titles; and worst of all, they all keep switching sides. It gets confusing. I had to make a character chart as I read it. Somehow, despite all this, these plays contain some of Shakespeare’s most complex and deeply defined personalities: Richard Plantagenet, his sons (including the future Richard III), Henry VI, Queen Margaret, Talbot, Humphrey, etc. They’re fully realized people, as strongly developed as any of Shakespeare’s characters. Hell, I’d put Richard III above Hamlet in psychological complexity, and just below Prince Hal. Shakespeare wasn’t messing about when he wrote these plays.
Ben Power and Dominic Cooke were absolutely messing about when they wrote this screenplay, however. They clearly approached the project with the same attitude as the press releases: nobody likes these plays, so how can we turn them into Game of Thrones? As a result, they’ve managed to cut pretty much everything that makes these people likable and/or interesting. They’ve stripped the plays to bare bones, leaving only the violence and political quibbles, omitting the sense of tragedy, nobility, and all the while still managing to invent a love affair subplot as an excuse for a sex scene. The story moves at a break-neck speed, with such a sense of urgency that the audience has no time to establish any sort of emotional connection with the characters.
It doesn’t help that this cast is overplaying the hell out of everything. The first series of The Hollow Crown adapted all four plays in their entirety, and its greatest strength was its cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, Rory Kinnear, and the eminently wonderful Simon Russell Beale. Given the brevity of the screenplay, however, it’s no wonder that this new cast struggles so to sink into character. Most of them simply act loudly. I got the impression that many of them would have been good on a stage, but boy howdy, were they ever not good in front of the camera. Tom Sturridge does his best with a particularly empty Henry and Hugh Bonneville is about the only actor who tries to pull our heartstrings. Sophie Okonedo has reduced Queen Margaret (one of Shakespeare all-time top five kick-ass ladies) to a one-dimensional, irritating, conniving, cruel political robot… so yeah, basically a lesser Game of Thrones character.
No one ever does these plays, and I fear this production has only ensured that practice of dismissal shall continue. I cannot fully express how thoroughly displeased I am with this. That said, oddly enough, I have hopes for the next two installments. Since they’ve already finished the first two plays, and have two more episodes left, at least that implies they’ll adapt those in full. Benedict Cumberbatch will be taking center stage now as Richard III, which isn’t my ideal casting, but who knows? Maybe he’ll do something interesting. Or maybe the production will continue to reduce these works to their simplest, basest, most meaningless forms.