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BWW Review: THE HOLLOW CROWN - HENRY VI: CIVIL WAR, BritBoxBWW is reviewing the multi-award winning BBC Shakespearean series, The Hollow Crown, starting with Ben Whishaw's Richard II and finishing with Benedict Cumberbatch's Richard III.

A king, dungeoned with his thoughts, incapable of leading as much through absence of will as ability, the accident of birth delivering privilege but not potential - presides over a country tearing itself apart. Factions fire verbal volleys that soon turn lethal, the populace takes sides with little understanding of the issues but plenty of emotional pull and Europe looks on unsure of how, or even whether, to help.

Shakespeare can do that of course. His words seduce with their allusions, sliding into your ears, frictionless. But they carry venom too - the unflinching look at man's weakness uncomfortably relevant for these uneasy times. You don't have to look far to find the Henrys, the Edwards, the Warwicks of today.

Director, Dominic Cooke, spares us little of the unique horrors of civil war - as in Spain nearly 500 years later, father falls at the hand of son and son at the hand of father. Pre-Geneva Convention warfare also contrasts the chaos of the acquisition and establishment of power with its regal administration, all pomp and circumstance trailing blood in the water. In a time when the role of slavery in the foundation of industrial economies is being examined anew, it's a useful lesson.

Tom Sturridge (though his Henry is absent for much of the time) delivers a wonderfully humane performance, supine yet royal, good yet not good enough, loving yet distant. His morality is the one that chimes (or is it chimed?) with the generation that survived Passchendaele and Hiroshima.

Sophie Okonedo's Queen could hardly be more different - vindictive, driven and ruthless, until a battle that could have gone either way falls against her. Okonedo's warrior princess loses nothing in comparison with the bloodthirsty men about her.

Stanley Townsend finishes off a tremendous long-running turn as the thuggish powerbroker, Warwick, with his bass tones silenced by the run of cold metal. Sam Troughton (as the vacillating Clarence) and Geoffrey Streatfeild (as the yobbish King Edward IV) are also good in roles that pile on the obnoxious all the way to 11.

But they're all competing against a role that grows and grows and a performance that does likewise. Benedict Cumberbatch draws us ever closer in every moment in which he is on the screen - we feel the slights, our eyes light up with his as ambition's path is cleared, and we, against all our instincts, want him to rise above this rabble, even though we know the terrible price of that ascent.

"I am like no brother;

And this word 'love,' which graybeards call divine,

Be resident in men like one another

And not in me: I am myself alone."

The danger of the ambitious, charismatic, narcissist right there. Don't say you weren't warned.

The Hollow Crown is available for streaming on BritBox

Previous episode reviews are available here.

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From This Author Gary Naylor