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'The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses' is a Shakespearean Mashup of Sorts
December 11, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Okay, okay, we’re sold. We believe it. Game of Thrones has nothing on Shakespeare.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a three-night series that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), proves that point by merging three Shakespeare plays – Henry VI part one, Henry VI part two and Richard III – into one seamless historical drama.

One tumultuous and violent historical drama, in which the prize is the British throne and almost no cost is too high to secure it.

Unlike Game of Thrones, Hollow Crown is based on actual tumultuous and violent history. The two main rival sides here, the houses of York and Lancaster, each spent the 15th century convinced the throne was rightfully theirs.

This year’s edition of The Hollow Crown, which will run on Sunday nights through Christmas, picks up where 2013 edition left off.

Once again, the producers have enlisted an A-list of British actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III, Hugh Bonneville as the Duke of Gloucester, Tom Sturridge as Henry VI (left), Sophie Okonedo as Queen Margaret, Keeley Hawes as Queen Elizabeth and Judi Dench as the Duchess of York.

Familiar faces like Michael Gambon and Ben Daniels also pop up as the large cast evolves and shifts. New blood is essential, it might be noted, since the old blood is constantly being spilled.

Whether or not Game of Thrones set the current high bar for graphic violence in television drama, The Hollow Crown strives to clear it. Throats are slit, heads are severed, blood flies everywhere during extended battle scenes and just for a change of pace, we get a long look at Joan of Arc being burned at the stake.

Shakespeare wrote considerable violence into his scripts, of course, but stage performances tend to limit the representation of that violence.

Here, having film to play with, the producers can set various scenes in woodlands, countrysides and dungeons. They also have today’s whole makeup and special effects kit to play with, and they aren’t shy about using it.

The more benign side of turning a stage play into a film is that the production looks terrific. Outdoor scenes and historic locations are a delight, even when what’s happening there is somber and ominous.

Condensing three Shakespeare plays into six hours means trimming some of the original material, which will be noticeable to some aficionados, but on the whole makes the action move faster and the core story easier to follow.

What hasn’t been cut are Shakespeare’s words, which of course are magnificent, and the actors here deliver them with skill and relish.

Cumberbatch (left) and Bonneville are among the standouts, but there isn’t a weak link in sight.

It’s worth remembering, too, that while Shakespeare based his plays on historical figures, he never aimed to be an historian. He was creating drama based on real-life characters, and he wrote those characters in a way that would entertain and please audiences watching their stories a century or more later.

Sturridge’s Henry VI, who became king when he was nine months old, is portrayed less as a weak ruler, though he is that, than a reluctant one.

He wants to be a civilian so badly that after a traumatic battle he wanders away and throws his crown into the river.

When you were born a king in the 15th century, of course, downshifting to become a subject was not an option. Henry VI is propped up and manipulated by those around him, notably including Queen Margaret and an army of aristocrats who have a vested interest in their side retaining the throne, which would also mean they could retain their heads.

Richard III, on the other hand, relishes the thought of power and endures a whole unlikely roller coaster of events to get there. As written by Shakespeare and played by Cumberbatch, he will never be voted Mr. Congeniality.

The problem with Shakespeare for many modern-day viewers and readers is that he seems intimidating. His stories are involved, his writing dense.

The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses works hard to tear down those real or imagined barriers, and does a convincing job of it. It’s hardly a feel-good story, but it’s surely a tale well told.

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