Were you familiar with the plays before you came to The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses?
It was one of the plays I was least familiar with. They are quite exciting because they are rough and sprawling being written early in the career of Shakespeare. I had seen them on the stage in the history cycles. They are about England tearing itself apart and trying to work out what it is.
The plays have been condensed from four plays to three films. At the time they were performed, the characters would have been vivid in the audience’s imagination and they would have understood the references. Artistic license has been necessary – this is very much a version of the story, a clear one. I enjoyed reading the scripts more than the original plays, which is a terrible thing to say about Shakespeare! They have been condensed to have a clear narrative line, which is only for the better.
It is interesting to see the seeds and themes of Shakespeare growing and being revisited across plays. Richard III is a one-man narrative of a descent into evil and madness. We see Shakespeare honing his craft.
What do you think of your character, Gloucester?
He’s a simple character. Shakespeare thinks he’s a good man. He is caught between the political and the emotional. The history plays are fascinating because they are about family. You see Gloucester devoted to his nephew, devoted to the memory of his brother Henry V. His downfall is ultimately because his wife Eleanor enjoys using the credit card too much!
There’s fantastic tension in that Gloucester is unable to let go, but Henry VI is also clearly not ready. Meanwhile Gloucester has also created power himself. You can see the same thing in modern day situations, from a dictatorship to a boardroom. The plays explore the nature of power. Henry VI would like to dismiss it all and devote himself to higher thoughts. Richard III couldn’t give a toss about higher thoughts, he just wants power!
It is Gloucester’s death that unleashes the Wars of the Roses. The stability he represented was a certain kind of peace. You take out the central pillar of any society, then you create a vacuum. I’m not making grand claims for this, but you see it in Yemen, or Iraq, or Syria. In the play you see the dukes piling in, and chaos begins. This is the heart of the Wars of the Roses.
Dominic [Cooke] and Ben [Power] said that the central question of these films is: ‘How many bad decisions does it take before a madman is in power?’ You are taken from the glory of Henry V, to civil war, to a madman in power in Richard III. History has repeated itself in that vein.
The ripples of these family feuds can shape nations and have ramifications for centuries to come. The history plays have profoundly truthful family relationships playing out. In Gloucester’s case, he can see the woman he loves bringing a bad image to the central family and to the court. It’s the same as Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection, it doesn’t look good to the populace!
Did you look at the historical Duke of Gloucester?
Shakespeare writes with a political slant, of course he will not alienate his audience or his monarch! He understands a good story. It’s always going to be biased! It was useful in rehearsals to look at the real history but the plays always develop history for dramatic effect. You can’t be a slave to the actual history. I didn’t spend hours with my nose in the history books. Sorry, scholars!
The plays have been played by iconic actors for 500 years. How does that feel?
Gloucester is easier because he’s not one of those amazing legendary characters. When I was at the RSC I used to watch Robert Stevens’ Falstaff and Michael Maloney as Hal in the wings. I drooled over that production. The previous Hollow Crown series as well. There are many brilliant productions.
I was given a ticket to the Barbican at the age of twenty to see Richard III. I thought I was the master of the universe and knew everything about acting. About 20 seconds in I had my thumb in my mouth and was transported by this extraordinary performance of Antony Sher as Richard III. I wrote him a letter afterwards saying how much I’d learned! All my naivety as a wannabe actor was thrown away.
These characters are endlessly reinterpretable. We’ve had both Sherlock and Dr Watson do the part in recent times!
What’s it like doing the plays on screen?
Theatre is endlessly refreshable. Every production finds new nuances and has new relevance to its audience. McKellan’s Richard III spoke about a militaristic attitude and context where Benedict’s interpretation is completely different. Shakespeare is extraordinary because the work bears re-examination. I would defend our approach to Henry VI because it’s made it exciting.
Tell us about Tom Sturridge, who plays Henry.
It’s an extraordinary performance. He is trying to be a man but he doesn’t have the experience to be a leader. It’s not in his nature! He’s a religious thinker. It’s difficult to pull off without seeming wet! He does have a strength in him, which Margaret has to pull out of him. From Gloucester’s perspective she seems like a conniving cow! Henry wants to be a saintly man rather than a king. It’s a difficult thing to pull off and Tom pulls it off beautifully. It’s a bold performance.
The first cycle was moved into different worlds for each film and done by three different productions. This second chunk is very special because we have one vision taking us through the three films, both in terms of director and designer.