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BWW Review: THE HOLLOW CROWN - RICHARD III, BritBox BWW has reviewed 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.

Great art speaks because it is universal, its subject the human condition, its slings and arrows rending time itself. Every moment I was watching Dominic Cooke's adaptation of a 1593 play, I had 2020 on my mind.

Richard stands on the steps of a church, bible ostentatiously in hand, a show of faith from a faithless man. His entourage bends at the knee, pleads that only his gaining of the crown can solve the very problems his vaulting ambition have caused and Richard shoulders the burden. His sidekick, Buckingham, smirks as he walks away, soon to be undone himself by a man whose code is transactional and not regal.

When Benedict Cumberbatch (magisterial in the role of this least majestic of kings) stares down the camera to say what Richard really thinks, unfiltered by courtly ritual or Machiavellian scheming, we hear an uncomfortable echo of tweeting, the means by which truths and untruths can spear into the minds of the masses.

It all ends in the origin story of the House of Tudor, whose last monarch was the one Shakespeare was keenest to please (he was a jobbing actor and theatrical producer lest we forget), so if Luke Treadaway seems a little too good to be true as the (soon-to-be) Henry VII, that's forgivable.

There are splendid cameos everywhere you look. Ben Daniels' oily Buckingham; Judi Dench, Sophie Okonedo, Keeley Hawes and Phoebe Fox as four cursing queens whose vengeance eventually comes forth; and Paul Bazely as Catesby, the kind of silent apparatchik seen standing near Stalin in photographs - until he isn't.

Cumberbatch judges his Richard perfectly. The shambling, twisting gait is only noticeable when he wants you to see it, the anger flashes only to underline and not exemplify his psychosis, the ruthlessness exhibited as much in eye as in deed.

And his Richard never loses the crucial quality of charisma. You do not wonder how good men and women could be led to such bad decisions, you feel the depth of their casual betrayal by a man in whom more than merely fools would believe, you understand Richard's pain even as you blink at his depthless cruelty. It's all there in the text of course and any actor should find it, but it's only a great actor who can keep jolting you with its complexity, its universality, its perception.

There's much debate right now about the kind of history we should teach in our schools, its fitness for purpose in the 21st century, but maybe we should think about the art too. I remain unconvinced that Shakespeare, raw in tooth and claw, should be taught in all schools, but I think kids need to be given the tools to (perhaps much later in life) see Richard III and understand its power. If they don't find this one, they'll certainly find their own Shakespeares, their own Richards, their own Hamiltons and they, and the world they create, will be all the better for it.

The Hollow Crown is available for streaming on BritBox

Previous episode reviews are available here.

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