The Hollow Crown brings together Britain's best classical stage directors and actors to sink their teeth into The Henriad, four of Shakespeare's most acclaimed history plays.
On the small screen, this Bard has bite
When historical Shakespeare on TV looks better than Hollywood and feels as good as an episode of Game of Thrones - and once you get past the shock that archaic words written almost half a millennium ago are flowing into your mind and heart effortlessly - you know the BBC is at the top of its game with The Hollow Crown.
In fact, there's no shortage of wannabe king-slayers and palace intrigue in this lavish literary slice of British history - the four plays of the Bard's second historical tetralogy, the Henriad: King Richard II; King Henry IV (Part 1); King Henry IV (Part 2); and King Henry V - lovingly adapted and produced by Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of Skyfall, American Beauty and Road to Perdition.
"Shakespeare is at its best when you speak it like you're making it up, when it sounds as if it were written yesterday," says Tom Hiddleston, who portrays Henry V. "What makes these films accessible and immediate to a contemporary audience is that we have, for the first time, spoken it very differently, spoken with a fluency and an ease, a very sort-of off-the-cuff spontaneity."
Also donning the kingly robes and creasing their foreheads with the angst of state are Jeremy Irons (as Henry IV) and Ben Whishaw (as Richard II), spurred on by a who's who of British thespian royalty.
Says Irons: "I hope what we'll do is remind, especially the younger generation, who may have been put off Shakespeare in the past, that he is a wonderful writer."
Adapted into four two-hour films, and originally produced as part of the Cultural Olympiad for the London 2012 Games, the plays chronicle the power struggles, redemption, family conflict and betrayal of the British monarchy from the end of the 14th century to the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Some very forward thinking went into making the Bard's period pieces come alive as a mini-series-styled drama for contemporary viewers.
Even the costume designer Annie Symons tapped a modern parallel for her inspiration: "I looked at football hooligans, the way they move and wear colours. We thought about war as sport - which it definitively was in the age of chivalry. We decided they were football teams. I chose dark congealed bloods for England and beautiful blues, whites and golds for France."
Directors on board include a laurelled veteran of stage and screen, Sir Richard Eyre (Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2) and the TV newcomer Richard Goold (Richard II).
"We also thought it was very important to work with someone who was coming fresh to Henry V," says the executive producer Pippa Harris, "and how much more fresh to have a woman [Thea Sharrock] directing Henry V.
"The more I read it and the more I thought about it, the more this play for me is a play about war," says Sharrock, "and about one man's journey through learning to be a king. Not knowing how to do it."
"It's very much a period piece but I wanted, particularly with the costumes, and then again the design, to have a modern-day aspect to it," she adds.
"I've got Tom Hiddleston playing Henry V. I don't want him to have a bowl haircut; I want to have him looking good. I want him in delicious, tight-fitting leather jackets. I want people to look at him and want to keep watching. I don't need him in tights, so he's got very nice leather trousers in mine."
The Hollow Crown begins with Richard II at 11pm tomorrow (Thursday) on OSN First HD
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