God how I wish we'd had shakespeare adaptions like these while I was at school (which admitedly I only left 6 years ago)!! Ive always loved shakespeare inspite of the dreary lessons we merely endured, with some truly dull and lifeless 1970s adaptions to try and fire our passions for the bard, but these new adaptions of the history plays are, in my opinion, a triumph.
Starting with Richard II, Ben Whishaw plays the titular role and brings an otherworldliness to the character, along with brilliantly portraying Richard's vanities and insecurities, and his total belief in the divine right of kings. Every emotion is on display in Bens face, evoking everyone from Michael Jackson to St Sebastian (it's amazing how much Ben looks like a pre-raphaelite painting!), and even Christ himself, and he handles the language like the pro that he is. Ben heads up what is a who's-who check list of British thespians, not least Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, aswell as Rory Kinnear as Henry Bollingbrooke, and David Suchet, David Morrisey, and Clemence Poesy, among many many others. I have to give special mention to the deposition scene, where Richard officially, and reluctantly, hands over the crown to Bollingbrooke- Dear god the scene is riveting, and is a powerhouse of a performance from both Ben and Rory. Eyes literally glued to the screen throughout the scene. The St Sebastian imagery may have been overdone and, some might argue, unneccessary, but, for me, its a minor quibble with what is otherwise a brilliant adaption.
Next up, the Henry plays. Henry IV parts 1 and 2 see's the great Jeremy Irons take the title role, as the aged king, plagued by guilt and anxiety over the manner of his coming to the throne, and hoping to pass on the crown to his wayward son, Hal, who would rather spend time in the pub than take on affairs of state. Jeremy Irons is his usual brilliant self, magnificently portraying a troubled king who is deeply unhappy with the behaviour of his son. Cannot criticise this performance which some are claiming as his finest since Brideshead revisited. Tom Hiddleston plays the wayward Hal. Ok, yes I am a fan of Loki from the Thor/Avengers movies, but Tom is a fine actor beyond that and handles the role very well, naturally tackling the language and the transition of a young prince from petulant brat to regal king. His scenes with Jeremy Irons are brilliant, especially the verbal chastisement from the king, and where Hal assumes (a tad too early!) the crown from his father. Truly moving stuff. Simon Russell Beale speakes shakepeare like a second language, and slightly underplays the comedic role of Falstaff, yet combines all the elements of the character- the jolyness in the Pub, aswell as his scheming side. The scene where Hal rejects Falstaff in Part 2 is, I think, very well done and you really sense how hard it hits Falstaff, whatever his motivation for sticking with Hal may have been in the first place.
Lastly, but not least, Henry V. Again, I think this was a truly worthy adaption with some great moments. Lots of people have been less impressed with the Crispins Day speech, and I take their point about making the speech to the leaders and not to the common men on the ground. I think the idea of making the speech to a small group of men is a sound one, but the idea just doesnt seem to have been executed as well it might have done. Again, Tom Hiddleston seems at ease with the language, and I think his scene where the king mingles with the men in disguise the night before Agincourt is very well done- successfully getting across the fears of men who appear to be staring death and defeat in the face, questioning the very nature of war and leadership. Yes there are scenes missing which many feel was a profound mistake, but what is here is brilliant, and a bold, worthy adaption of a play which has a much celebrated history, with some of the most famous adaptions ever comitted to film. A personal highlight was watching Henry court the princess Katherine..... a genuinely charming, funny, sweet scene which had me giggling like a love-struck schoolgirl :)
All in all, while some may argue that there are imperfections to this series, kudos to the BBC for taking on the challenge in the first place! This is a brave and, in my view, stylish, classy series, with some wonderful scenes and performances, and of course the glorious words of Shakespeare. If nothing else, I think younger audiences will hopefully be turned on to shakespeare more widely as a result of these adaptions, and that surely has to be a plus in itself.