Henry VI Part II Review
England is at war. The King is at war with the house of York as the two factions fight brutally for the throne in the War of the Roses. Henry VI, despairing of the turmoil makes a pact with Richard, Duke of York, agreeing that he be allowed to reign for his lifetime and that the crown will revert to the House of York upon his death. Richard agrees but Henry’s queen, Margaret, is incensed at Henry’s actions which disinherit his own son. Margaret musters her own troops and wreaks bloody vengeance on the House of York. As the years pass and casualties mount on both sides can there ever be a real winner?
I confess that of all of Shakespeare’s plays I am perhaps the least familiar with Henry VI Parts I-III (here condensed into two parts) and as such I’m the perfect audience for this slick, superlatively acted offering from director Dominic Cooke and Neal Street productions. It condenses a cast of thousands into a snappily paced, utterly compelling 2 hours. Beautifully lit and scored this is hugely impressive television. Much has been made of the Game of Thrones style action sequences and even a hardened horror aficinado like me winced at the sheer brutality on display throughout as several well loved British character actors were savagely slaughtered. The fight scenes stand up against any mega budgeted Hollywood action movie.
The acting is of course extraordinary. Tom Sturridge is gently affecting as Henry, utterly distraught at the sheer carnage surrounding him. Never has the crown weighed heavier than during a particularly distressing scene where he witnesses the aftermath of a son realising he has inadvertently slain his own father. The consistently brilliant (and hugely underrated) Kyle Soller is superb here as Clifford, consumed with rage and grief over the murder of his father. I could barely watch his brutal undignified end at the hands of Benedict’s truly psychotic Richard III. Sophie Okonedo whaltzes off with the whole thing as Queen Margaret. Strong, proud and fierce she is a force to be reckoned with - Boudica, Joan of Arc and hell Xena Warrior Princess in one. Infuriated at Henry’s move to disinherit her child she cuts a bloody, completely merciless swathe through her opponents. Yet by the end of the piece she is heartbreakingly affecting as she is forced to witness the death of her child at the hands of the House of York. Noone escapes this war unscathed.
From the leads to the minor players everyone here is perfectly cast. Even Andrew Scott appears for a jaunty cameo (looking fabulously resplendant in his crown) as the King of France.
Benedict has a small role in Henry VI Part II but he is utterly mesmerising. The man turns 40 in a couple of months yet at the beginning of the piece he very convincingly portrays Richard as a teenage boy. There’s no magical Marvel style de-aging CGI here of the type which made Michael Douglas look early 30’s in Ant Man and turned Robert Downey Junior into a teen in Captain America Civil War. Using nothing more than his voice and changing the way he stands Benedict manages to come across as a young, awkward teen boy, full of fire and dismayed at his father’s easy acceptance of Henry’s deal. When his brother is brutally murdered while he hides, distraught and terrified, we emphasise with his distress. It doesn’t seem cowardly, he’s just a young boy caught up in the maelstrom of a brutal power grab. Of course by the end of the piece Richard has blossomed into a brutal psychotic. His dispatching of Kyle Soller’s Clifford is excruciating to watch. Cold, psychotic, hardened by brutality and circumstance Richard is a truly unsettling character.
But it’s in the final 10 minutes of the piece that Henry VI Part II really soars. Richard III, alone in a boat rowing towards the Tower of London turns to the camera and starts to soliloquise. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as Benedict turns and starts to directly address (you) the camera. Powerful and full of foreboding it leaves you desperate to see what happens next (hint it doesn’t work out terribly well for anyone). Richard III airs next week and I for one simply cannot wait to see what Benedict does with the role.