BBC Complete Shakespeare: Richard III

Over time, it’s fair to say that Richard III has become, by far, Shakespeare’s most popular history play. It’s not hard to understand the attraction either considering that Richard isn’t just the best villain in all of Shakepseare’s canon (sorry, Iago), but he’s a villain that makes us, the audience, complicit in his villainy. It doesn’t hurt that the play is stuffed full of memorable scenes and dynamite language that combine musicality and horrific violence in terrifying and fascinating ways. But it’s also Shakespeare’s longest play after Hamlet, and is always subject to heavy editing when it’s filmed to be a standalone version. But the play doesn’t truly reach its full potential for visceral potency unless it’s seen as the culmination of the Henry VI trilogy, and one of the great benefits of the BBC’s Complete Shakespeare series is that we can finally see a nearly uncut version (at nearly 4-hours) as the climax of that first tetralogy.

To fully explain the story is nearly impossible without someone having previous knowledge of the Henry VI trilogy (which is precisely why it’s so heavily edited when it’s made to be a standalone film). After the prolonged and bloody war between the houses of Lancaster and York, York has finally triumphed and Edward IV (Brian Protheroe) sits on the throne as king. But this doesn’t sit well with his misshapen, hunchback brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester (Ron Cook) who has decided to set the hostile factions of those belonging to Queen Elizabeth (Rowena Cooper) and those loyal to the king against each other. But he also has to plot to kill his elder brother, Clarence (Paul Jesson), as well as his son, and the sons of Edward. Meanwhile, he’s also planned to seduce the Lady Anne (Zoe Wanamaker), who was the mother and husband to two of Richard’s victims.

Richard III is a play, much like Hamlet, Lear, and a few others that is dominated by its lead role. Richard is undeniably one of the most fascinating and charismatic characters in Shakespeare’s canon and, like most such character, any production will sink or swim on the actor who plays him. Here, Ron Cook is at the helm. Cook had also played Richard in Howell’s versions of I and II Henry VI, and he was quite an underwhelming Richard in both, and I didn’t have high hopes. Yet I’m happy to report that my doubts were unfounded, as Cook is a marvelous Richard. Of course, he’s got incredibly stiff competition from the likes of Ian McKellen and, of course, the legendary 1955 Laurence Olivier version, but Cook is smart in that he goes in an almost completely opposite direction from either actor.

Indeed, Cook must surely be the most muted, understated, and natural Richard on film. While Olivier’s performance was, perhaps, the finest example of his artistry and greatness, it’s also one that was easily parodied because of how histrionic it was. Of course, Richard is a bombastic character and, like certain Shakespearean roles (Cleopatra is one that comes to mind), the role can support such melodrama. But in dialing back the intensity, Cook really presents a much more subtle and wittily sinister Richard. One might say that his performance adds a psychological weight to a character that has never been known for his complexity. His Richard is intelligent and conniving, while still maintaining all of the charm. Especially potent is that first rapid-fire exchange with Lady Anne, amongst the plays many highlights.

If Cook’s Richard dominates (as it should), it doesn’t chew the scenery to the detriment of everyone else. Julia Foster thankfully returns as the dejected Margaret. She was the highlight of the Henry VI trilogy and her part is usually cut in standalone Richard III versions, but here she gets to haunt the play, casting her curses that, indeed, do seem to hang over the play ominously throughout. Brian Protheroe brings some unexpected emotion to Edward IV in the scene in which he laments the fact that nobody interceded for his brother, Clarence’s life. Likewise, Paul Jesson’s Clarence gives a riveting account of his nightmare, which is one of the most linguistically visually potent speeches in all of Shakespeare. Michael Byrne takes on perhaps the most underappreciated role of Buckingham with great humbleness, acting as a mere catalyst to Cook’s Richard, playing alongside him.

Oliver Bayldon’s set reprises its role from the Henry VI plays, though here it’s in complete ruin and disrepair, a mere ghost of the colorful playroom that existed in I Henry VI. Director Jane Howell milks the most out of the darkened set, casting much of the film in minimal lighting which culminates in the ghost scene where those slain haunt the dreams of Richard. In its uncut form, this is certainly the most provocative and evocative rendering of the haunting I’ve seen on film, as we finally get the full impact of Richard’s disintegrating psyche and confused speech upon his awakening. Essentially, these BBC Shakespeare’s aren’t for cinema purists, as they’re, more-or-less, stage productions without an audience that use the camera as a narrating element. But the emphasis is still placed on Shakespeare’s words, and what the production is able to do with them.

Overall, this is a supremely worthy effort to conclude Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy with, and it’s a welcomed edition into the canon of great Richard III film productions. It may lack the gregariousness of Olivier’s version, but in return we get a much richer view of what was Shakespeare’s first masterpiece. The restoration of Margaret, for instance, reinstates one of the key themes of the play between free will and fate, and the uncut runtime gives us a deeper look into how deep Richard’s treachery goes. Considering that the series is so faithful to the text, it’s no surprise that the finest moments come with Shakespeare’s finest moments, especially those back-and-forth verbal exchanges which crack and sparkle like linguistic fireworks.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

One Response to BBC Complete Shakespeare: Richard III

  1. nitrateglow says:

    Cook is such an unsung Richard.

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