Heads Up: Shakespeare's History Plays

Once more unto the Beeb ... the Bard's back on the box

Holly Williams
Saturday 26 May 2012 19:41
The history cycle will star Ben Whishaw
The history cycle will star Ben Whishaw

What are we talking about? Four new films, commissioned by the BBC, of William Shakespeare's history plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V.

Elevator pitch Bard on the Beeb: it's a Best-of-British brush-up on the histories.

Prime movers Sam Mendes is exec producer, with Pippa Harris (Call the Midwife) and Gareth Neame (Downton Abbey). Directing Richard II is Headlong/RSC man Rupert Goold, who adapted the script with Ben Power (who adapted Emperor and Galilean for the National). The Henry IVs are adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, and Henry V sees Thea Sharrock (After the Dance) directing.

The stars Ben Whishaw is Richard II; the supporting cast only features Patrick Stewart, Rory Kinnear, David Suchet, David Morrissey, Clemence Poesy, Lindsay Duncan and James Purefoy... And the quality continues in the Henrys: Tom Hiddleston is Hal to Jeremy Irons's Henry IV, with Simon Russell Beale as – who else? – Falstaff, and Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly. And keep your eyes peeled for Michelle Dockery, Maxine Peake, Niamh Cusack, John Hurt, Iain Glen...

The early buzz The Telegraph seems most excited by the presence of Downton alumni: "Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery is set to play another lady – this time as part of the BBC's Shakespeare season marking the 2012 London Olympics." The Daily Mail suggests the project is an attempt at highbrowing up the Beeb: "Four of Shakespeare's best-loved history plays are being adapted for BBC2 as part of a move by the broadcaster to answer criticisms it has been dumbing down its classic drama."

Insider knowledge Expect stockings and sceptres: they're set in the historically accurate period – despite Goold wanting to stage a Richard II based on Michael Jackson's life...

It's great that ... a slot on BBC2, not the outer regions of BBC4, should mean a decent audience tuning in for what could have been billed as niche.

It's a shame that ... while there's sackfuls of talent here, much is of a very theatrical bent – hopefully they won't just look like filmed plays, but will make the most of the TV format.

Hit potential Should be a palpable hit, with the potential to be a definitive filmed version of the histories – but then, hours of blank verse may still not appeal to a mass audience.

The details Shakespeare's History Plays will air from the end of June.

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