In praise of Benedict Cumberbatch

It may be controversial to say so, but he's really something, isn't he?

Sometimes it is a critic’s duty to swim against the tide, to stick his or her head above the parapet and speak the truth no matter how controversial it may be. Occasionally one must even stick one’s head above the parapet whilst swimming against the tide, which can really put a nasty crick in the neck. All of which is a preamble to prepare you for the fearlessly contrarian nature of the opinion I am about to offer. Brace yourselves. Here goes:

That Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s really something, isn’t he?

Controversial, eh? I still thrill at the memory of one of the first times that I noticed him—his chilling cameo as a predatory spiv in Joe Wright’s film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a case, if ever there was one of “great cameo, shame about the movie.” (If I had the technical expertise I would attach to this blog post an audio file of my uncanny impersonation of Cumberbatch delivering his most blood-curdling line: “Bite it. You’ve got to bite it.”)

It was a sliver of a part but it informed the rest of the picture, and not only because the actions of Cumberbatch’s character had a cataclysmic effect on the narrative. It was also to do with the breadth of interior life that he brought to the part: every gesture and twitch and inflection contributed to our sense that the character was pursuing his own pleasures far beyond the confines of the film we were watching. I wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to attempt to distil the essence of great acting, but an aspect of it must surely be to convince us that the character lives on outside this one film or play or television show. That’s why David Thomson’s speculative fiction collection Suspects, which proposes lives for various characters (such as Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd, Jake Gittes from Chinatown, Julian Kay from American Gigolo) outside the parameters of their respective movies, is one of the essential film books of all time. It’s rooted in our extra-curricular relationship with the figures flickering on screen.

Anyway, Cumberbatch stole Atonement for me, then proceeded to steal everything he has ever appeared in. The eyes, both naïve and beady, positioned a hair too far apart in that slightly hammerhead-shaped face, seem simply to have access to more of the world than the rest of us; it’s no stretch to imagine a David Attenborough documentary on the wild, lesser-spotted Cumberbatch. Though with roles in Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second instalment in JJ Abrams’s ongoing reinvention of the formerly clapped-out franchise, and The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange, “lesser-spotted” is way off the mark. And is it possible for someone to have intelligent lips? I’m not sure. But if it is, then Cumberbatch has them. It’s all in the pursing.

There’s a lot of that in his electrifying performance in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Avoid reading anything about Cumberbatch’s character if you can help it. (Apart from what you’re reading now, obviously: here at the NS, we always blog responsibly.) But it’s enough to say that he brings passion, menace and depth to a part that could have been played with nothing more than relish. British actors have in the past become the playthings of US blockbusters—there were lots of bandwagon-jumpers who didn’t have the wit of, say, Alan Rickman in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance—but there’s no danger of that happening with Cumberbatch.

Stephen Fry suggested in 2007 that American viewers may not be equipped or inclined to differentiate between good and bad work from British actors. “I sometimes wonder,” he wrote, “if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there. I mean, would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance?” His theory was founded on a bogus and rather archaic distinction between British and American acting styles: he suggested that Americans have an inbuilt ability to relax in front of the camera, a quality that evades British performers. He contrasts the “supreme relaxed authenticity of a James Stewart or a George Clooney” with the “brittle contrivances of a Laurence Olivier or a Kenneth Branagh, marvellous as they are.” But this argument revealed much more about Fry’s outdated perspective on trends in British acting than it did about any actual disparities between the UK and US. Who now would posit Olivier or Branagh as representative examples of this country’s acting styles? And relaxation has many gradations. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cumberbatch may be playing a character bent on causing widespread carnage and destruction, but no one could mistake him for a man unable to savour his rather gruesome line of work.
  
If British actors are cast as the “supervillain, emotionally constipated academic [and] effete eccentric”, as Fry wrote, that is because these are the only roles offered by unimaginative US studios, not because these are the parts best suited to their talents. But it is also the case that, in many instances, the actor maketh the role. What Cumberbatch does in Star Trek: Into Darkness, even in the simple exchange of eye contact with Mr Spock (the excellent Zachary Quinto), is acting of subtlety and brilliance, no matter that the context is a 3D, effects-heavy Hollywood sequel.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is on release; The Fifth Estate opens later this year.

 

Mr Cumberbatch in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

BBC
Show Hide image

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.