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‘Hollow Crown’ review: War of Roses sparks 3 dramas

Benedict Cumberbatch (as RICHARD III) in The Hollow

Benedict Cumberbatch (as RICHARD III) in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, HENRY VI (PART II) Photo Credit: Carnival Film & Television Ltd / Robert Viglasky

THE SHOW “The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses — Henry VI, Part 1”

WHEN | WHERE 9 p.m. Sunday on WNET/13

THE GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sunday is the first installment of “The Hollow Crown’s” “Henry VI” tetralogy, which follows “The Hollow Crown’s” monumental 2012 production of the so-called “Henriad,” covering many of Shakespeare’s most beloved historical plays from “Richard II” through to “Henry V.” This three-parter covers that bloody and Byzantine dynastic struggle known as “The War of the Roses” (1455-1487) when supporters of the House of Plantagenet and Lancaster and supporters of the House of York chose either red or white roses, respectively, as symbols of their support in the coming wars. “Henry VI, Part 1” covers the early reign of Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) who is forced into an arranged marriage with French-born Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) to save (some) English territories in France. Intrigue stalks the court, as Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville), Richard of York (Adrian Dunbar) and Somerset (Ben Miles) — allied with the House of Plantagenet — warily circle one another while waging war in France. A condensed “Henry VI, Part 2 and 3” airs Dec. 18, and the final part Dec. 25.

MY SAY Mozart’s early symphonies are rarely played any more -- except by the truly devoted (or obsessed) -- and Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 1” rarely staged. Reasons are essentially the same: They’re apprentice works that only hint at the greatness to come. While a young Shakespeare wrote this out of historical sequence, the producers of “The Hollow Crown” had no such luxury, and you can almost imagine their grim resignation as “VI” approached: Uh oh, now THAT one.

To jazz up this play cycle, they added “The War of the Roses” to the title to remind viewers that this work does cover a vitally interesting period, one that also happened to inspire George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” But there’s only so much they can do with the actual play.

There’s none of the glory here of the preceding “Henry V,” which was written nine years later and gave posterity “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and so much else. There are a lot of boilerplate speeches, however. Some of those can even rival drying paint for inherent interest, and there are stretches Sunday that will tax viewer patience.

Under the circumstances, however, there are remarkably few. The cast is spectacular, production values over the top, and by adding extra dimensions that enrich the story, they also deepen its meaning. There’s Bonneville’s wounded Gloucester, who brays that “virtue is choked with foul ambition” before he meets his own end; or Okonedo’s gimlet-eyed Meg, who twists the poor, dimwitted king around her finger; or Sturridge as the callow king, whose weakness creates a void that foments both a ruinous war and eventually a tyrant, Richard III.

In fact, his own close-up will be worth the wait. The 400-year-old crowd-pleaser, “Richard III,” airs Dec. 25 with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Merry Christmas.

BOTTOM LINE A lesser known, and unloved Shakespeare play (which, incidentally, had other co-authors) comes to life Sunday, but the better plays air over the next couple weeks.

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