You think Game of Thrones, Orange is The New Black, Mr Robot, or House of Cards represent the best of premium drama on TV this year? Think again.
Sarah Ward

3 Nov 2016 - 12:12 PM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2016 - 9:11 AM

The Hollow Crown is absolutely just as great as any of the premium dramas we've seen from HBO, AMC, and Netflix in recent years. 

With its first four-part season produced by the BBC in 2012 as part of their contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, and a further three parts airing in 2016 to wrap up the Bard’s best-loved history plays, The Hollow Crown is a remarkable production. Thankfully, any concerns initial executive producer Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Spectre) and his team might’ve had about the scope of their task, they’ve clearly managed by crafting intimate and complex interpretations of the classic stage works.

Set to become the TV adaptations of record, The Hollow Crow truly is a lavishly made all-star Shakespearian epic. As King Richard II (Ben Whishaw) explains in the opening moments of Richard II, the first installment in the series, the plays tell “sad stories of the death of kings”.

It starts with Whishaw recounting two years in the monarch’s life, as his poor choices in trying to settle an argument involving his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) lead to a dark end. The tales of those who trace his footsteps follow in the Henriad tetralogy, as Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), struggles with a rebellion, and is succeeded by his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston). Then, young Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) sparks the War of the Roses, while the manipulative Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to manoeuvre his way to the throne.

The spilling of blood; back-stabbing, brutality and blazing exchanges of words; towering castles and tricky terrain: they’re all here with a volume more typically seen in Game of Thrones than in on–screen Shakespeare adaptations. This is Shakespeare for the modern, discerning TV viewer.

With seven parts of the series, The Hollow Crown starts with Richard II. It's time to get swept up in the historical Shakespearian intrigue of The Hollow Crown.

You haven’t seen this on screen before

Whether you live and breathe Shakespeare or have barely touched the Bard since school, it’s highly likely that you haven’t seen Richard II on screen before. A cinematic version has never been made, and the one and only prior made-for-TV adaptation was produced back in 1978 as part of the BBC’s year-long project to stage every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Don’t equate its absence from screens with a lack of quality, however. On the stage, everyone from Ian McKellen and Mark Rylance to Kevin Spacey and Eddie Redmayne — aka three Oscar winners and a two-time nominee — has played the eponymous role, putting Whishaw in great company. For his efforts, the latter won a BAFTA for best leading actor.

Get up close and personal

When John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), Bolingbroke’s father, speaks his final speech, The Hollow Crown ensures that viewers look directly into his eyes. And when Richard II exclaims the phrase that gives the series its title, the camera peers at his face through the circle of his crown, as held in his hands.

Filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays bring a difference sense of intimacy to his work — on the stage, there’s a connection forged by being in the same room as the performers; on a screen, there’s nothing more powerful that being able to take in every tear-streaked cheek, watch lips quiver in anger, or see a defeated stare offered by a conquered sovereign. It’s nothing less than visually immersive and emotionally involving, as is the use of genuine locations rather than a stage, and it’s enough to make you see Shakespeare in a whole new light.

No guts, no glory

If Game of Thrones has achieved one thing, it’s this: watching period-set drama, whether taking place in a dragon-inhabited realm of fantasy or written centuries ago and based on history, no longer feels the same without splashes of blood and sightings of guts. It’s something that the excellent 2015 film version of Macbeth recognised, splattering its conflicted character in the sticky, red substance of life whenever it could. Still, The Hollow Crown got there first.

Words prove as cutting as swords in all of Shakespeare’s works, of course, with Richard II no exception. But, when heads are lopped off, tell-tale swirls of crimson seep through water, and assassins take place, the audience experiences it in visceral detail.

Taking inspiration from Michael Jackson

He’s softly spoken, his fluid movements make him appear as though he’s almost floating through the room, he’s clearly enamoured with his own image, and he even has his own pet monkey. If Whishaw’s particular interpretation of Richard II brings to mind a certain male pop star, you’re not seeing things — it’s by design.

In the documentary Derek Jacobi on Richard II: Shakespeare Uncovered, which aired in Britain immediately after Richard II, director Rupert Goold admitted that he had been thinking of Michael Jackson when conceiving his interpretation of the character. The more overt aspects were reportedly dialled back, and comparisons to Jesus abound too, but here, pop culture and the most venerated of playwrights unexpectedly but effectively combine. Given today’s reality television and true crime obsession, it’s rather fitting.

That starry, starry cast

Think superhero films have the market cornered when it comes to amassing hefty, high-profile casts? Think again. Across its seven parts, The Hollow Crown corrals a collection of actors any movie or TV series would be envious of — including Shakespearian greats and stars of blockbuster comic book films.

In Richard II alone: Paddington, The Lobster and Spectre’s Ben Whishaw, his Bond co-star and Penny Dreadful actor Rory Kinnear, The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey, The Following’s James Purefoy, Royal Shakespeare Company veterans David Suchet and Lindsay Duncan, and none other than Patrick Stewart have considerable experience espousing the Bard’s words. Across future chapters, the likes of Irons, Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, Sally Hawkins, Michael Gambon, Julie Walters and Judi Dench also join the series.

Now that’s a cast.

The Hollow Crown begins with Richard II on SBS on 13 November at 8:30pm.

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