“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series.

I find this quite frustrating. In my experience, the Henry VI plays, especially Part One, work very well in performance: they are fast, easy to follow, lively and surprisingly funny (even on purpose!). True, each of the Henry VI parts feels less standalone than other history plays, but this is why a miniseries is a perfect space for them: with more people watching on-demand than live, and free from the time limitations of a theatrical performance, asking people to commit to watching four full-length ‘episodes’ (the same as in the first series of The Hollow Crown) doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The Henry VIs are also explicitly fantastical, including witches, demons, black magic, miraculously preserved decapitated heads, and spirits appearing from Hell to give ambiguous prophecies in Latin. Joan of Arc summons demons onstage, and other characters comment on her supernatural powers. A witch, a crooked priest, and scholars of black magic are hired by the Duchess of Gloucester to raise a spirit – successfully, with the devil Asnath appearing from the underworld to speak prophecies, which come true. Magic is real in these plays, it is physically present on stage and it is unambiguously effective. It is not in the characters’ heads or Possibly All A Dream.

But The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses seems oddly anxious about any part of the Henry VI plays that could be seen as “not real history” – despite the plays’ supernatural elements, and Shakespeare’s wild deviations from history, inventing and conflating events and characters.

The Hollow Crown sharply pares down the supernatural to make the story historically plausible. Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan) sees a statue of the Virgin Mary weep blood, and hears it calling her name; but it’s a memory of a vision, not an external event in the reality of the series. Instead of hiring magical experts to conjure a spirit, the Duchess of Gloucester (Sally Hawkins) takes out a crude doll of the king and sticks pins in it, which does not have any effect. Even the three York brothers’ seeing ‘three suns’ – the natural optical illusion of a parhelion, where multiple suns seem to appear in the sky – is changed in the miniseries to ‘three sons’, the boys seeing their own faces reflected in an improbably well-polished sword, literalising the echo the audience hears. It’s as if the producers are frightened of anything that might be perceived as supernatural or fantastic, even a natural phenomenon that does happen in this scientific world.

Tiny lines are tweaked to ‘better fit’ history. When Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo) is taken prisoner by an unknown English lord, her brave and arrogant self-identification as “daughter to a king – the king of Naples, whosoe’er thou art [whoever the fuck you are]” is changed to “daughter to a duke, the duke of Anjou”. The character’s chin-up sassing of her unknown captor is replaced with a blank recital of her father’s title – even though her father Rene did claim the title of King of Naples, so Shakespeare’s version isn’t even historically inaccurate.

At first the casting of Okonedo, a Black British actor, as a 15th-century French princess seems to be a welcome counterexample to The Hollow Crown‘s anxiety about looking historically accurate. But even here I picked up a discomfort with the historical implausibility. The French national army led by Joan of Arc in features a Black soldier prominently, as do troops accompanying the Duke of Richmond from Brittany, in northern France. I may be reading too much into this, but those three French characters are the only actors of colour I spotted in the cast. That is, instead of just presenting us with Okonedo’s casting – which would be accepted without controversy on any stage in the UK today – The Hollow Crown makes small gestures towards constructing a historical possibility for a Black French noblewoman.

A huge change is made to the characters of Somerset and Suffolk, both dukes on the Lancastrian (red rose) side. In the play, Somerset is a partisan hothead and Suffolk a louche adulterer having an affair with Queen Margaret. In The Hollow Crown, these characters have been combined into one, called Somerset (Ben Miles). I have no idea why, but it might be because Holinshed’s Chronicles, which are Shakespeare’s source and a less obviously fictionalised version of English history, say that Somerset, not Suffolk, was Margaret’s lover. (The Hollow Crown also includes a character called Suffolk (Jason Watkins), a generic lord bulking out the Lancastrian team and picking up stray lines here and there.)

To briefly gush: Miles is just great. He was smart and menacing as 2014’s top royal fixer/bruiser, Thomas Cromwell, in the RSC’s stage adaptation of Wolf Hall, and charmingly ambitious as Captain Peter Townsend, the love interest of another royal Margaret, in Netflix’s The Crown (2016). As Somerset, he’s one of The Hollow Crown‘s standouts, getting in a lot of the side-eye and glaring that’s by far the most fun part of historical drama. And for the first half of the story it doesn’t matter much which Lancastrian lord is Margaret’s lover/liaison/all-around cheerful dickhead (although a reference to “young Somerset” is changed to “brave Somerset”, ouch). Somerset is a wonderfully over-the-top baddie: during a rough battle in France, while the English captain Talbot calls desperately for aid, Somerset’s camp has meat roasting, music playing, soldiers gambling and laughing, and Somerset himself receiving a shirtless back massage from a boob-popping extra. It’s goofy and just great. He watches Joan of Arc burn to death while idly munching bread, does the most perfunctory dirt-tossing you can imagine onto the graves of dead English soldiers, and exchanges a spectacularly good instance of shaking-hands-while-glaring-at-each-other with the Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), that should be .gif-ed and put into every aspiring costume drama actor’s welcome pack. It’s a performance much more in tune with the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays than most of the script, and it’s a shame the rest of the production didn’t embrace the fun and run with it.

I wonder if this obsession with historical ‘accuracy’ is because in the past five years or so, British Shakespeare culture has become more aware of a trend called ‘globalised Shakespeare’. In 2012, the Globe to Globe festival brought Shakespeare productions from 77 countries to the UK, creating a mini shock wave in establishment Shakespearians; from 2014-2017, the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London ran a ‘Global Shakespeare’ MA. But the one advantage England (and I use ‘England’ rather than the UK advisedly) has over other places doing Shakespeare is that Shakespeare is here in a way that he isn’t, and can never be, there. Look, The Hollow Crown says, Shakespeare wrote this scene in Westminster Abbey – and look, it’s Westminster Abbey! Here is the Tower of London – yeah, the real one! From the first shot, panning over the waters of the English Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover, the series is almost aggressively situated in real historical England. It’s ostentatiously shot on location where possible – especially at Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London – and where the historical buildings don’t exist any more, filmed at substitutes from the right period. (Alnwick Castle, an 11th-century castle remodelled in the 14th century, must be making a shedload off filming fees.) The Hollow Crown tries to give the Henry VIs an English authenticity that refutes anyone else’s attempt to claim these plays. According to that version of the plays, the Henry VIs are impossible to understand unless you live in England and know English history. But if the witches, demons and pirates are left in, and if Shakespeare’s historical ‘mistakes’ are left uncorrected, the Henry VIs pass out of English history and into fantastical fiction, and England loses a unique claim to them.

I don’t really mind the BBC’s commitment to bolstering Visit England’s tourism numbers by frantically locking down the connection between Shakespeare’s stories and English heritage sites, except for how it kills the fun of the plays.

What really fucks me off about The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of the Henry VI plays is how it cuts out nearly every single working-class character, in a trilogy unusually full of them.

Just going through the big ones, the Henry VI trilogy includes:

Jack Cade, an energetic, chaotic Kentish revolutionary who leads a rebellion against the nobles with an enthusiastic band of workers. Half proto-Marxist, half circus ringmaster, Cade and his crew spew lively anti-elitist dogma, and attack and kill several nobles and a clerk for, variously, oppressing the people, instituting unjust taxes, and knowing how to read. Cade’s follower Dick the Butcher speaks the plays’ most famous line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

Saunder Simpcox and his wife, a poor couple of St Albans, who stage a fake miracle and are discovered and whipped out of town by the Duke of Gloucester. As they are hustled offstage, Mrs Simpcox insists, “Alas, sir, we did it for pure need.”

Walter Whitmore, a sailor, and a Captain, who intercept the ship of the Duke of Suffolk. They taunt him and summarily execute him for stealing and mismanaging public money, which the Captain calls treason.

The witch Margery Jourdain, the magical scholars Roger Bolingbroke and John Southwell, and the priest John Hume, who conjure a spirit and are executed: the men are hanged, and Margery is burned to death. (The wealthy noblewoman who contracted them, the Duchess of Gloucester, is also sentenced to death, but King Henry VI pardons her – explicitly, Shakespeare takes care to stress, because she is of noble birth.)

Thomas Horner and Peter, a master and apprentice who are forced to fight to the death in front of the court after one accuses the other of treason.

I’m listing these names and stories to show how much the working-class people of England are unusually present in the Henry VI trilogy – even more than the Henry IV plays, which are famous for the ‘low’ Eastcheap scenes, though these really revolve around the titled characters slumming it, Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff. Unlike the tapsters and hangers-on in Henry IV‘s Eastcheap, in the Henry VI trilogy the working-class characters have active, political working-class interests. They petition against enclosure (a practice of taking public land, which everyone could use, and fencing it off for private use). They fight for their personal honour. They organise legal resistance to the nobles’ mismanagement of the country. They break out in spontaneous violence when their legal avenues don’t work.

The BBC’s adaptation of the Henry VIs shows the effect of the nobles’ bad management and wars, but completely removes the persistent, vocal working-class opposition to it. When I went back to the text of the plays to check, it was striking how many of the events in the Henry VI plays are prompted by the actions of a working-class character, and how in The Hollow Crown, each one of those characters is removed.

In Henry VI, Part Two, we meet three petitioners who have travelled to London to present local problems they are hoping to have resolved. They are interrupted by Queen Margaret and her noble lover Suffolk, who are out on a stroll. When Margaret finds that the petitioners have addressed their complaints to the sympathetic Duke of Gloucester, rather than King Henry VI – a slight against the king’s authority, and Margaret’s – she is furious. She orders the petitioners away and whirls on Suffolk to complain at length about the way the kingdom is run.

The Hollow Crown keeps her rant, but removes the petitioners: instead, it takes place when Margaret is in the palace garden practicing archery and flirting with Somerset, and just indulging in an off-the-cuff idle whinge. The petitioners’ organised, collective legal resistance is removed.

In the Henry VI trilogy, the House of Commons has a tremendous voice and power that terrifies the nobles. Even the imperious Queen Margaret fears them, and the Duke of Gloucester is so wary of them that he pays soldiers’ wages out of his own pocket to avoid offending the Commons by asking for a tax. The Commons can influence policy and make direct demands of the king: when the Duke of Gloucester is murdered, the Commons suspect Suffolk is responsible, and “like an angry hive of bees”, some burst on stage to say that if Suffolk is not banished, they will break in and lynch him. The threat is enough for King Henry VI to agree to their demand, and banish Suffolk.

In The Hollow Crown, the lower chamber of England’s Parliament doesn’t seem to exist. The BBC cuts the lines about them, and the Commons’ appearance onstage. The conversation about Suffolk/Somerset’s involvement in Gloucester’s murder takes place in a small private room, attended by whispering nobles, and the whole outcome of the scene is changed: Henry does not banish anyone.

That is: The Hollow Crown is so committed to cutting out the voices of empowered non-noble people that it changes the plot of the play, even to go against the historical record, which it otherwise obsessively sticks to.

There are no rioting Londoners yelling that if they are forbidden to carry weapons, they’ll fight with stones; and if forbidden stones, they’ll fall to it with their teeth. There is no sense of the class struggle that is simmering throughout the plays, and which blows the lid off social order with Jack Cade’s revolution in Part Two; no sense of the danger the commons pose to the nobles, or the hurt that the nobles are inflicting on the commons. The most we see of any working-class people is in a long crane shot at the end of Richard III pulling back from Bosworth Field, where lie the bodies of thousands of voiceless, nameless people, passively crushed beneath the wheel of upper-class vanity. There is no whiff of the popular anger and powerful organised resistance that runs through Shakespeare’s plays; the options for peasants in The Hollow Crown are to acquiesce to die quietly in service of a noble family spat, or simply not exist at all.

Cutting out every named poor character in a publicly funded production of England’s national poet is pretty dire. It’s not even very good cultural advocacy. If public productions want to argue that Shakespeare can speak to everyone, not just the BBC/PBS-watching ‘cultural elite’, they must reflect the Bard’s strong, varied portrayal of working-class anger and power. Instead Auntie Beeb reduces “Shakespeare” to a bunch of toffs picking meaningless fights with their cousins, leading to the passive voiceless deaths of thousands. In Henry VI, Part Two, Jack Cade strikes his staff on London Stone and urges, “Down with them all!” Can the BBC really say this anti-elitist anger isn’t relevant to people watching free public television today – or were they worried someone might get ideas?

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