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Eternal struggle

27 May 2016

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HISTORY is not what it used to be — or, at least, Shakespeare’s his­tory plays aren’t. In my youth, with their succession of usurpa­­tion, be­­heading, and murder, they were fascinating as works of drama, but they were essentially about times other than our own.

Yes, parts of the world still suf­fered from such medieval barbari­ties, but they were far away, and sooner or later would learn better. Nowadays, we know a sadder truth: savagery taps at our window panes, and justice and stable government are hard-won today.

So The Hollow Crown, BBC1’s adaptation of these plays, which reached its climax with Richard III on Saturday, was not so much about olden times as, chillingly now, the machina­tions and manip­ula­tions of politics and naked power-struggles only too easily trans­ferable to events and nations closer to us than we hoped.

This production could not have been starrier — Judi Dench, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch — but what it showed was why they are stars, as they relished the opportunity to prove themselves once more in the greatest parts on offer, eager to find new and deeper meaning in lines however familiar.

We know that it is myth rather than history, but myth often conveys profounder truth than any merely accurate recording of events. The sheer hell of civil war, the destructive cycle of blood feud and revenge, the failure of chivalric honour as an adequate moral system — none of this swamped the personal and dynastic struggle for power or sheer survival.

The production was naturalistic, and the action was set in real build­ings. Normally, such an attempt reminds me how much these are works of artifice, but here the balance was just right: a glorious triumph.

Our familiarity with, and rever­ence for, the Bard is secure enough to permit BBC2’s Upstart Crow (Mondays), Ben Elton’s sitcom about the playwright’s travails in Stratford and London. At first sight, this is slight indeed, a rehash­ing of Elton’s Blackadder tropes. Two episodes in, I think it is better than that.

David Mitchell is superb as Shakespeare, a pro­vincial nobody who hates the glamour of the university and court poets, and yet longs to share it himself. Elton’s gags fall into a few well-worn categories: anachro­nistic conjunc­tion of 16th- and 21st-century concepts; quotations from the plays inserted in the characters’ dialogues; plots that we recognise from the canon, but which work in a different direction.

Several aspects need a deeper, Eng. Lit.-degree-level familiarity, to appreciate fully. There is a particularly nice running gag about the relationship with Kit Marlowe. Yet, for all the vulgar buffoonery, it is, in the end, a homage. Shake­speare can take it — as he could, even, Cunk On Shakespeare (BBC2, 11 May), Charlie Booker’s absurd mockumentary, starring his asin­ine presenter Philomena Cunk.

More a skewering of the ludi­crous conventions of TV docu­ment­ary than actually about its supposed subject, it contained several lines likely to become clas­sics, such as: “What’s Hamlet actual­ly about? Well, I’ve watched it, and I can tell you it’s about four hours.”

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