I learned recently that Al Pacino once planned to play Richard III on the movie screen but decided he could not top Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1955 portrayal (so Pacino created the documentary, Looking for Richard, instead).
If Benedict Cumberbatch felt a similar reluctance, he clearly overcame it. And obliterated it.
The Hollow Crown’s Richard III, broadcast in the USA on PBS stations this past Sunday, was a triumph. Ben Powers’s adaptation, with a deliciously malicious Cumberbatch in the title role, thrummed with energy like the hunchback king’s finger on a chessboard.
I was especially interested to see how the production handled Act I Scene 2, between Richard and the grieving Lady Anne, since that scene strikes me as one of the most problematic in Shakespeare. But it was pulled off royally (see what I did there?), reinforcing Richard’s malice without straining credulity.
Cumberbatch dominated every scene, even opposite the brilliant Judi Dench (as the Duchess of York) and Sophie Okonedo (as Queen Margaret). Their strong performances overshadowed Keeley Hawes’s Queen Elizabeth (which is not a criticism of her, as their roles are so much juicier) but took nothing from the “rudely stamp’d” king.
I was a tad disappointed in Cumberbatch’s delivery of the iconic lines, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” which felt hurried and detached from the situation as they were delivered. But everything else about this Richard III made me grateful that Cumberbatch (and the Hollow Crown folks) didn’t shy from tinkering with and tackling Shakespeare’s greatest history play.