Last week, the BBC concluded its broadcast of The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses, a series of teledramas based on William Shakespeare’s earliest plays. PBS will re-air the series in the United States later this summer. And, hopefully, they will attract the wide-ranging popular audience that this entertainingly accessible take on Shakespeare is capable of reaching.
The War of the Roses series is directed by Dominic Cook, a respected stage director who is new to film and television, but whose use of the camera skillfully emulates recent television successes like Game of Thrones and House of Cards. Cook has trimmed Shakespeare’s original three Henry VI plays, and his Richard III, in order to give expanded screen time to the battlefield. Both in intimate scenes like the one that follows cowardly King Henry VI through battle, and in epic moments like the haunting crane shot of Queen Margaret as she surveys the genocide of the series’ final conflict, Cook’s camerawork does just as much of the storytelling as Shakespeare’s text. The series is less concerned poetry and profundity as it is with the exhilaration inherent in a medieval power struggle. And, by wasting no time to indulge in poetry or profundity, The Hollow Crown captures the drama of its source material.
War of the Roses has as talented a cast as any television program in recent history. And the most notable member of its cast is–of course–Benedict Cumberbatch as King Richard III, the vengeful Duke who murder five men and two children in order to take the throne. Cumberbatch’s Richard, unlike most portrayals of the character, is not a monster. His Richard is cruel, unforgiving, and power-hungry, but he learns to be so because he has seen Tom Sturridge’s King Henry VI lost hold of the kingdom due to his quiet naivete. Throughout Richard III, Cumberbatch’s hand hovers above a chessboard while he plots to usurp the crown. And, like any good chess player, Richard has simply taught himself to play the position in front of him. Monstrous though he looks, wearing the king’s infamous hunched back, Cumberbatch’s Richard fashions himself in response to his political environment.
The rest of the cast delivers number of impressive performances. Sophie Okenedo, playing Queen Margaret, gives an eerie performance as she transforms from a young concubine to old witch driven mad with grief. It is an issue with Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays that the title king is so indecisive that he cannot play much more than a supporting role in his own plays, but Tom Sturridge plays him as such a humble man that he wins our sympathy even while he moves into the background. And Judi Dench, like always, is solid as the one character who can intimidate Cumberbatch’s Richard III: his mother.
It will be hard to find a metric by which to gauge the success of The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses. On the BBC, the cycle drew what look like fantastic numbers: a 5.8 ratings and over a million viewers for its first episode alone. But English television ratings are notoriously incomparable to American ones, and PBS almost certainly won’t be able to hype the series to much effect. There a risk in a big-budget adaptation of Shakespeare, the sort of risk that the BBC’s guaranteed funding model enables it to take. And it is a shame that American TV networks, which are much more reliant on their sponsors’ dollars, have to be more conservative with their lineups.
Nevertheless, War of the Roses will also be available on Blu-Ray and DVD next month, and it will long be available to any Shakespeare student with enough interest to find it. Here’s hoping, though, that it finds an American audience that doesn’t just study Shakespeare but can actually be entertained by him.