The BBC returns to Shakespeare following the first instalment back in 2012. This time they have contracted Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3 into Henry VI part 1 and 2. They have also chosen to stick with one director instead of spreading the work across three directors like they did on the early history plays. Dominic Cooke takes the helm this time and has adapted the plays alongside Ben Power. Cooke has really tackled this task head on, giving us time to enjoy Shakespeare's poetry but keeping the pace moving along in these early and less refined Shakespeare plays. What is particularly pleasing is the stylistic consistency which helps to carry us through these epic journeys. Throughout both episodes Cooke marries the real historical stories with Shakespeare's fictional artistic licence and gives us little reminders and clues here and there such as “5 years earlier”. This just nicely helps to tie Shakespeare's narrative into the real history of the Wars of the Roses.
Hugh Bonneville as Humphrey of Gloucester does a great job of portraying the humble Lord Protector who we vie for throughout despite knowing of his impending doom. What is great is that Cooke has created a great sense of tension and keeps us on the edge of our seats to the point, where even if you know the story, the journey there keeps you on tenterhooks throughout.
There are of course cuts her and there and there is a great device with Sally Hawkins as Eleanor who uses a voodoo doll to curse Henry VI. It means that we loose all of the witchcraft text from the original but Cooke use the advantages of the camera to tell this story as powerfully as if the text were still in and complimenting rather than damaging the story as Shakespeare has written it.
The Joan La Pucelle story feels very cut down but we still get the main point and plot of her story and we witness utter medieval brutality in her treatment by the English Lords. Cooke shines a light throughout the series on the attitudes and behaviour of the rich to the poor in the medieval era.
Sophie Okenedo charts a deeply interesting journey as Margaret from young maiden to manipulative queen. She grows and grows in little steps throughout and really shined new light on this role. Okenedo is utterly watchable and chilling. Ben Miles as Somerset is pure Machiavelli and what Miles and Okenedo manage to pull off excellently is to show the love that is between Somerset and Margaret and not just the lust which is often a trap when playing these two roles.
Tom Sturridge is a brilliantly jittery and louche King. One moment you feel sorry for Henry and the next moment both angry and frustrated at his lack of action and his indecision.
Sturridge is the exact embodiment of Henry that one imagines.
So far this first episode has really stepped up from the previous series. The series ends with a genius conceit when the Duke of York comes home and calls out the name of all his children, ending with Richard. A young boy then emerges hobbling toward us from the shadows. It is a genius ending to the First Episode.