The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is celebrated in grand fashion with these three dramas and with actors such as Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret and Andrew Scott as King Louis in Henry VI Part Two and Benedict Cumberbatch taking the title role of Richard III, there’s no doubting the star credentials involved. We caught up with the very busy Mr Cumberbatch.
How did you connect with the character of Richard III?
In terms of tackling the real historical figure versus the fictionalised version in Shakespeare, I think we’re smart enough as audiences that the two can coexist.
The script does all the heavy lifting. Richard tells the audience about how wrong he feels in his body, about being dejected and overlooked, and about being unable to be part of a royal courtly life with the Plantagenets.
In medieval England if you were not born perfect you were often drowned at birth. It was a terrible social taboo. In Shakespeare’s story, Richard is fostered at a distance from the Kennedy-like family of perfect specimens. There’s very little care for him. His deep-seated anger and hurt leads to his ambition and everything we know of him. That was our way into humanising him.
Do you see Richard III as a villain or as an anti-hero?
His arc is hugely brilliant. In Richard III he gives a speech about how he’s going to go and kill the king, Henry, and how this ties into his feelings about himself as a disabled man. I think that humanises him. As an actor you have to flesh out your character. You can’t pantomime with the daggers and the looks, because that gets really dull.
There’s such humour in other moments where Richard relishes his plans. He’s an anti-hero because he lures us in. He’s very funny, hopefully. Audiences don’t necessarily side with him but they revel in his villainy! I also don’t want to burden Freudian analysis onto him and make him more understandable. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, he’s just a victim of this cruel world. Oh, what other choice did he have?’ Of course he had choices. He very clearly makes the wrong ones and suffers the ultimate downfall for that.
What do you think of Ben Power’s scripts?
Richard III is often performed stand-alone, because you can mention it in the same breath as Macbeth and Othello, if not, say, Hamlet. It is a standalone of the histories in a way that the Henry VI’s aren’t. What Ben has done is to create a sense of a through-line in the themes across the plays. He has created a real sense of urgency.
What’s it like to work with such a stellar cast and crew?
It’s exciting to see the talent you can draw due to the shorter engagement period. For example, it took Judi Dench a matter of days to film her scenes playing my mother, but to get someone of that ilk to do that on stage would be tricky, if not well nigh impossible.
History cycles are sometimes done, but rarely with the same director, and in this medium I can’t think of these plays ever having been done with the same director back to back like this. This series of The Hollow Crown is a continual drama rather than three separate films.
Dominic Cooke is an extraordinary director and someone who managed the Royal Court, one of our best-loved theatres, through a period of one of the best incarnations of new writing. He is so beloved in our industry, as well as being utterly brilliant, very kind and generous. You feel in safe hands.
It’s a winning element that we have the combination of Ben Power, the script-writer, along with Karen Hartley Thomas who worked on the prosthetics, with Dominic overseeing all.
What was it like working on location when shooting these scenes?
One of the joys of the job was an extraordinary heritage tour of Great Britain. It was a real honour for all of us to have access to these incredible parts of our history. It was awe-inspiring to be on these hallowed bits of preserved or ruined ground which these characters might actually have walked upon. The settings immediately create a sense of drama and scope.
What was like to recreate the medieval battles?
We were carrying around weapons of steel and aluminium, which were props but could still do a great deal of damage. We were fighting in fields and in rivers with water literally up to our chests. It was brutal.
The broadsword as a weapon could crack your skull open with just a glancing blow. It really is such a barbarous way to go about winning power. I’m in awe of it. The training was tough - all of us would come away from training looking shell-shocked and pale!
Henry VI Part Two is tonight (Saturday) at 9pm on BBC Two with Richard III the same time next week. Henry VI Part One can be found on BBC iPlayer