With two of the three installments of Series 2 of The Hollow Crown now up on the iPlayer and Richard III coming this Saturday, it can safely be said that this series is as good as the one that came before it.
I was uncertain of that after Henry VI Part 1 (And half of Part 2) played two weeks ago. Partly this was due to it having to live up to Ben Whitshaw’s remarkable Richard II which lead off the first series. Tom Sturridge isn’t bad as Henry VI, but he’s not near as striking a performance. That also went for Ben Miles and Adrian Dunbar as the dueling Dukes of Somerset and York, who seemed like secondary voices behind Hugh Bonneville’s Gloucester and Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret. Okonedo basically walked in, picked up the entire production and proceed to walk away with it. Bonneville was the only one putting up a fight.
But with Henry VI Part 2 (The second half, plus Part 3) the entire production picked up speed. It helped that Okonedo was put front and center for the crown, the point of even having her wear armored mail. It also helped that other names willing to consider the production one that had to carry arrived, in the form of Geoffrey Streatfeild as Edward IV and (as everyone knows) Benedict Cumberbatch as the to-be Richard III. Even France got an upgrade. I was highly impressed with Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc, the rest of France mostly didn’t register. For the second half we got Andrew Scott as an absolute delight as King Louis XI.
The fact that they were going up against Eurovision was perhaps not their fault. Someone at the BBC probably considered it nationalist counterprogramming to the musical competition in Sweden. Personally I reveled in the jarring point-counterpoint of violent Shakepeare as a chaser to the shot of Ukraine taking it at the last moment from Australia.
I have seen some protests that the second installment has taken a little too much after Game of Thrones in terms of violence rendered on screen. Personally, I consider what they’ve done pretty restrained, considering. After all, the comparisons to Game of Thrones were inevitable–the A Song of Ice and Fire books are loosely based on the Wars of the Roses (Lannister:Lancaster, Stark:York), and attempting to put one on TV while the other is at it’s peak ratings moment was always going to force comparisons.
But Shakespeare is also to be blamed, perhaps, for the amount of violence. After all, the reason that the Henry cycle doesn’t find its way on stage that much is due to the sheer scale of the production that Shakespeare imagined attempting on stage. Part 3 has five in all, four of which are supposed to be staged. That means that nearly every production basically threats the three pays as a problem to be solved rather than shows just to be given as is. And in this day and age, following the lead of the show that the BBC let get away was probably inevitable considering the terrain. (Yes, the BBC was originally supposed to be production partner to HBO for Game of Thrones and chickened out)
The Player: We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.
Cumberbatch has big shoes to fill going in to Saturday night’s final installment. Ian McKellen’s turn in the 1990s era WWII set film looms large. But unlike McKellen, who simply was dropped in front of us to intone “Now is the winter of our discontent” with little preamble and even less of a by-your-leave, Cumberbatch has been allowed an introduction and a world in which his seething, villainous rage against everyone involved in this horrendous war, including his own family, is placed in context. I would also be prepared for more blood.