In Review

Benedict Cumberbatch gives a 'dazzling turn' in Hollow Crown

Sherlock star delivers a 'gripping study of psychopathy' in BBC's adaptations of Shakespeare's 'least loved' histories

The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses, the BBC's second cycle of Shakespeare's history plays, has been hailed as "moreishly thrilling".

The first series aired in 2012, starring the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Ben Whishaw in adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV: Parts I and II, and Henry V.

The new cycle, which begins on Saturday, adapts Henry VI: Part I, followed by the second and third parts condensed into one film and then Richard III. The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Sturridge, Judi Dench, Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okonedo, Sally Hawkins and Keeley Hawes.

It follows a century of dynastic conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster, culminating in the bloody War of the Roses. Sturridge stars as Henry VI while Cumberbatch plays Richard III, a largely malevolent observer in the early plays who eventually takes advantage of the instability to become king.

Early comments have been positive.

Jasper Rees in the Daily Telegraph described the adaptations of "the least loved of Shakespeare's histories" as "moreishly thrilling" and praised a "dazzling turn" from Cumberbatch, who appears in all three films.

"He outrageously steals every scene he's in", writes the critic, and his transformation from silent witness into axe-wielding malevolence is "a gripping account of pure psychopathy" which gains an added sense of menace when he confides his darkest thoughts directly to camera.

While the previous cycle was shot by multiple directors, Dominic Cooke helms all three this time and "with so much talent on show, he sometimes isn't sure which way to look", chopping between fixed camera, handheld and even helmet-cam and falcon-cam. Still, Rees admits, he has a "theatre native's deep trust that the best special effects are all in the language".

The War of the Roses has previously been accused of sexing up Shakespeare, after it was reported that Okonedo, as Margaret of Anjou, features in a sex scene with Ben Miles's Duke of Somerset.

The scenes are from the director's and scriptwriter Ben Power's imaginations and the relationship is only implied in Shakespeare's original, "meaning purists may not be impressed", says the Daily Mirror.

Director Cooke, however, defended the changes, saying: "There is definitely no doubt in the full-length play that they are involved together."

In an interview on Cult Box, Cumberbatch called Cooke "an extraordinary director", adding: "I can't think of these plays ever having been done with the same director back to back like this."

As for the scriptwriter: "What Ben has done is to create a sense of a through-line in the themes across the plays. He has created a real sense of urgency."

The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses, Henry VI Part I airs on BBC2 at 9pm Saturday. 

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