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BWW Review: THE HOLLOW CROWN - PARTS NINE, TEN AND ELEVEN, BritBox BWW 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.

Ben Power's adaptation (appropriately) focuses on power, its acquisition, its maintenance and the inevitable compromises that follow its execution. Under Thea Sharrock's full throttle direction, we get an absolute rollercoaster ride through one of ol' Shakey's finest, one that makes Game of Thrones look like child's play. The contrast with the plodding plotting of Henry IV could not be more stark, and the greatest beneficiary of that change of pace is its lead.

Tom Hiddleston grips one of the great roles in theatre and strains every last drop out of it. Charismatic, fearful, coy, bold, ruthless (so ruthless), reckless and, ultimately, victorious, no hand is overplayed, no thousand yard stare unwarranted, no rhetorical flourish overcooked. All the set pieces are there, but each arises seamlessly from character and narrative, so they're only noticed in the rear view mirror, a sure sign that the acting and direction are at one. (This happens in the theatre of course, but it's often a bittersweet moment - here we can rewind for an "Unto the breach..." or another cracker, so we're fine.)

Other decisions also work perfectly. John Hurt's unmistakeable voice as the Chorus sets up each act and he appears, cadaverous and weary, in an epilogue that portends the chaos to come. Mélanie Thierry as Princess Katherine delivers her "Le main, les doigts..." scene with coquettish charm, the opening scene, showing her fate to be a widowed mother of an infant king, giving it the contrast it needs. Thierry gets splendid support in both this scene and in the wooing of King Henry from a hilarious cameo by Geraldine Chaplin as Alice, the scornful lady-in-waiting.

Though this is Hiddleston's play from start to finish, there are splendid performances wherever one looks. Anton Lesser's (Duke of Exeter) hesitation and half-sigh as he carries out his orders to execute prisoners, was a whole lecture in the morality of warfare in a fleeting gesture. Paterson Joseph's (Duke of York) eyes shining at the prospect of the St Crispin's Day massacre tells you all you need to know about the excitement of battle and the perils of bravery. Owen Teale's (Fluellen) brusque dismissal of pleas for mercy after Bardolph's minor looting underlined that this was no adventure back home with Falstaff, but the weight of the nation in the palms of so few hands.

Underlying it all is the poetry of Shakespeare's language, seldom more fitted, more beautiful, more terrifying in its awful majesty than in this play, one that gives England so many of its foundational myths. These come thick and fast (Shakey knows what's afoot and has a monarch of his own to please) and such mythologising set the State challenges in the immediate aftermath of Agincourt and has continued to do so down the centuries, with the ledger brimming with entries on either side of the balance sheet.

To watch this play, especially this version, is to see how England - an England - was conjured into existence, on the battlefield and in culture. How to deal with it? Well, we haven't worked that out yet, have we?

The Hollow Crown is available for streaming on BritBox

Previous episode reviews are available here.

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