The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Richard III - Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses: Richard III - Review * 21 May 2016

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Chess is meant to be a quiet game.

One of skill, and tactics of course. But the sound you'd expect from a game is silence, or at least chatty conversation.

In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III, chess becomes a visual metaphor, as Richard makes his final manoeuvres  to secure the throne for himself. We're introduced to this idea from the off, as Richard moves pieces as he describes the inevitable 'Winter of Discontent', in one of Shakespeare's most famous opening lines. Everything surrounding the use of the board is striking throughout the episode, not least in this first sequence, where Richard plays the game alone, and  shirtless. Famously he has always been portrayed with a hump, but the discovery of the skeleton of the real king underneath a car park in Leicester allows the production to deploy some scientific accuracy here. Benedict wears an impressive prosthetic full body makeup to create the appearance of scoliosis - a curved spine, and a right shoulder that is thrown much higher than the left, thus creating the 'hump'. It's a bold opening, confronting the audience more directly with the deformity than most stage productions, and the visual impact of it absolutely enhances Shakespeare's words. Benedict plays the sequence in a state of spitting fury, loathsome but utterly shameless of his misshaped body, a stunning monologue of spite and anger that is addressed directly to camera. This is of course the original House of Cards, with the audience party to the horrendous plans that this 'bottled spider' will execute to obtain the throne of England. The film is peppered throughout with his wry glances to us, and Benedict revels utterly in this style of performance.


Richard wears a mask of friendliness and joviality throughout the early stages when with others, though in several sequences when he is alone with women he becomes a creeping creature capable of making your skin crawl, particularly in his halting attempts at affection. The mask utterly slips though in the lead up to the greatest act of evil in any of the History Plays, once the younger of his two nephews openly mocks Richard to his face. Though Richard has already effectively informed us of his plan to kill the boys, there was a sense of jest about it. Now though it seals their fates, and the chessboard makes its most memorable reappearance. Once the crown is won Richard finds he cannot make a further move, instead rhythmically drumming his fingers on the board itself, the sound elevated to threatening levels thanks to his ring clad fingers. It forms the doom laden soundtrack to the death of the princes, the decisive event that seals Richard's position as King while simultaneously dooming him. The chessboard is cast aside. Victory ultimately defeats him.

This sense of duality and opposites runs into the second thematic metaphor that is pulled right the forefront of these productions, and in a genius twist it is one that you are unaware of until you view this final part. Throughout the episode, we see the return of the (former) Queen Margaret, with Sophie Okenedo now grey haired and aged. Spitting curses and doom, she carries a mirror with her, holding it up to those she flings her anger upon - but most of all Richard. It forces him to look upon himself, and near the close the ghosts of his victims come to haunt him in the night, with Margaret's mirror acting as a window for their visitations. The choice to have Margaret be the herald of these visions, and Richard's sudden self examination and ambiguous regret, is a hugely interesting idea. The suggestion thus emerges in this production that Margaret's own barbaric actions in Henry VI Part II effectively created Richard, with the murders of his father and younger brother. The idea is only enhanced by the productions of Henry VI coming before this instalment, with cast shared between the entire series, rather than seeing the more common productions of the more famous Richard III in isolation.


Everything has of course lead to the Battle of Bosworth, and as Shakespeare writes it, the triumphant rise of the Tudor dynasty, with Luke Treadaway portraying the utter essence of heroic nobility that has been absent from all parts of this series as the future Henry VII. While the earlier physical depiction of Richard is newly accurate, the manner of his death here remains resolutely based upon the Bard's writings - though as evidence and scientific research has discovered, we should perhaps be thankful of that based on the horrendous wounds the real Richard III suffered. In the driving rain and liquid mud of the battlefield, Richard is no longer the vital young man of the previous play, instead now reliant on a mount to make him devastating in combat. When the other famous line of the play and Richard's final spoken line comes - "My kingdom for a horse!" - it is a full throated bellowed wail from an outmatched man trapped in a suit of armour like a tortoise on its back. In the end, while his death at the hands of Henry Tudor is brutal, it is merciful and definitive - unlike any of those kills Richard personally performed in Henry VI Part II.

The other members of the cast are as superb as you would hope. Keeley Hawes as Queen Elizabeth, wife of the fading King Edward V, is a mass of steeled resolve that gives way to ultimately trembling fear as events and manufactured scandal overtake her. Judi Dench, as Richard's mother Cecily, is aloof and indifferent towards her son before a cold horror creeps across her at his actions, leading her to chilly scorn. Ben Daniels is a charming co-conspirator as the Duke of Buckingham - in the closest the play comes to true comedy, he is given the wonderfully farcical task of aiding Richard convince an assembled group of nobles that he should be king, all as Richard pretends to reject the notion by playing along as a deeply religious man who has no desire to rule. It is the complete opposite of his actual nature of course, and Buckingham instantly realises this as Richard returns his victorious grin with a blank, cold stare.


Throughout the series, Dominic Cooke's direction has been fearless and utterly inventive. Richard III may lack much of the visual flash that filled both parts of Henry VI - no GoPro cameras attached to the end of a spear here -  but it is more classically shot and filled with beautiful cinematography, and some superb flourishes - the brutal murder and drowning of Clarence in particular stands out, the horror of the assassination playing out through sound alone as we focus on and rotate around the bucket that he will imminently be dunked in, until a large puddle of blood slowly flows into frame. The shot perhaps can sum up the entire film - up until the explosive close, this is a production where the greatest feeling is one of creeping dread and unease.

One final thing, away from this production itself, as Benedict is not the first member of the Sherlock cast to play Richard III - Martin Freeman took to the stage in 2014 for an excellent, modernist production at the Trafalgar Studios in London. Despite some early media attempts while that production was performing as Benedict's participation in The Hollow Crown was announced, there are no comparisons to be made to Martin's performance. The beauty of Shakespeare lies in the ability to interpret the text, and so this Richard III is staunchly traditional, whereas Martin's was cleverly revisionist. Benedict is chilling and malicious, whereas Martin was creepy but also slightly comedic. Both are brilliant, valid interpretations that call heavily upon the varied strengths of both actors, and it remains a huge shame that no recording was ever made of the Trafalgar Studios production.  


If Henry VI is relatively unknown as a sequence of plays, Richard III as a single play is hugely famous. The genius of this new series of The Hollow Crown has been to bring plenty of new insight and interpretation to the familiar material of Shakespeare's greatest villain, presented with astounding production values and wrapped in a portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch that transforms such negative words as 'chilling', 'terrifying' and 'spiteful' into incredible superlatives. Richard III is a stupendously good conclusion to both series of The Hollow Crown project by the BBC, and ensures that these productions will be respected and admired for decades to come.  

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