This British TV series (3 2-hour episodes) provides the rare opportunity to see Richard III together with its prequel, the rarely-produced story of Henry VI. The production values are very high. The cast is uniformly excellent, offering top-flight actors even in the smaller roles. The directors used period homes, castles and cathedrals for greater authenticity, and the outdoor scenes are actually filmed outdoors. The language is delivered, for the most part, in a naturalistic, accessible style, without the “declaiming” that mars many British productions. I have some quibbles with certain of the artistic choices, as noted below. But in general these productions are very fine.
The three parts of Henry VI have been condensed into the first 2 episodes. For the most part, that’s a good thing, since these plays aren’t Shakespeare’s best. They cut out most of the stuff about Joan of Arc (just as well, since she’s written as an unsympathetic character that would be jarring to most modern audiences). And by eliminating the subplot about Jack Cade’s rebellion, they cut the play’s most famous (and most famously misunderstood) line, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” But I suppose that couldn’t be helped.
The first part of Henry VI is by far the stronger of the two. Henry VI acceded to the throne upon his father’s death, when he was still an infant. His uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was named as regent. Twenty-odd years later, after Henry achieves his majority, other courtiers manage to get Henry to first depose Humphrey, then execute him. The story of a boy king turning against his uncle as an adult goes a long way towards explaining, though not condoning, Richard’s murder of his nephews some decades later.
The part of uncle Humphrey is played by Hugh Bonneville, best known to American audiences as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. I had no idea he was such a good actor.
The second part of Henry VI is still tedious, even with all the cuts. And although the deaths are in the play, the copious amounts of blood are a modern invention. I’m not sure it adds anything.
As to Richard III, what can I say? It’s one of Shakespeare’s great plays, and this version is credible enough.
Here’s where some of the artistic choices started to bother me. Richard III starts 10 years after the end of the last part of Henry VI. In an early scene,Richard courts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, who was killed at the end of Henry VI. Many standalone productions of Richard III alter the timeline to show Richard wooing Anne at Edward’s funeral — which is, in fact, closer to the truth. (Richard married Anne a year after Edward’s death, and they had a son, who died young.) Here, they stick to the play’s text, which implies a 10 year gap between Edward’s death and Richard’s marriage. Why keep the gap, even though they are presenting the plays together as a continuous whole? They even have a new actress to play Richard’s mother, which doesn’t sit right, even if it is Judy Dench — especially since all the other parts from the earlier plays are played by the same actors.
The biggest problem with this production, though, is Richard himself. There are two ways to play Richard III. The “traditional” route is to play Richard as grotesque monster, a man whose soul is as twisted as his body. The other route, which I prefer, is to portray Richard as man who might have been great, but whose mental chip on his shoulder eventually deforms his soul more than his physical one — more Michael Corleone than Scarface. Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch chooses the traditional route. He is a fine actor, who delivers his lines very well and chews scenery with the best of them. But his Richard is never a sympathetic character. You can’t wait for him to hurry up and die already, which means the play doesn’t have the emotional resonance a true tragedy might have had.