How Keeley Hawes lost her Shakespeare virginity

The actress stars in new adaptation The Hollow Crown this weekend - and she wasn't the only first-timer on set...

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I was a Shakespeare virgin before The Hollow Crown,” says Keeley Hawes. “I didn’t grow up reading Shakespeare and my family certainly weren’t in the habit of going to see the plays in the theatre.” For the normally feisty actor, star of The Durrells and Line of Duty, the Bard’s blank verse was blankly terrifying.

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“I was really frightened of it, frightened of the words and of that whole world. But it’s a box I had to tick. I couldn’t get away with not doing Shakespeare any longer.”

She needn’t have worried. Hawes’s performance as Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner Queen of King Edward lV, is one of the highlights of The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, the overall title of the three films that conclude BBC2’s landmark production of Shakespeare’s histories, comprising Henry VI, Parts I, II and III, and Richard III edited into three two-hour films.

The cast of the three films is a spectacular representation of the best of British acting talent, so from a standing start Hawes found herself acting with eminent Shakespeareans including Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, Sophie Okonedo, Hugh Bonneville, Adrian Dunbar, Anton Lesser, Jason Watkins and Samuel West among others.

“I started reading about the real-life Elizabeth and I decided to see my character as a sort of Princess Diana figure,” she explains. “Elizabeth is incredibly bright and able – far ahead of her game politically – but she is looked down on by the royal family because she’s been married before. When she gets together with Edward, it’s a bit of a shocker, but they have a happy marriage, at least in Shakespeare’s version – although he was dying of syphilis, so I’m not sure how happy it would have been really. Once you understand the characters, the language falls into place – you realise that it’s just people talking to each other. And I was doing scenes with Judi Dench, for goodness’ sake! So I found myself having a lovely time, and if I can have a lovely time with Shakespeare, anyone can!”

For series director Dominic Cooke, the Shakespeare virgins (the role of Henry VI is played by Tom Sturridge, another first-timer) brought a particular energy to the set. “Of course, it’s wonderful to have all these experienced actors who are absolutely at home in Shakespeare. Benedict is a brilliant Richard III, just brilliant. I came home from shooting each day thinking, ‘We have genius here.’’ But then you have someone like Keeley, who’s never been near Shakespeare. She came in, did the work, watched and learned from Judi and I think she’s as good as anybody.”

For rookie viewers, as much as for actors, six hours of blank verse is a big ask, but an elegant and beautifully spoken adaptation eases Shakespeare’s language round some of the trickier corners, while respecting cadence and metre. “We did quite a bit of adjusting,” says Cooke, who worked with National Theatre veteran Ben Power on the script. “We moved lines around and there’s a lot of compression. Some things, like the Cade rebellion, which is a glorious episode in Henry VI Part II, were hard to let go of, but when you’re turning four three- and-a-half-hour plays into three two-hour episodes, you have to make choices. We were trying to be faithful to what we thought the plays were about and what Shakespeare was doing, but at the same time trying to turn it into something very filmic and exciting to watch.”

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Hugh Bonneville, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench and Tom Sturridge in The Hollow Crown

“Exciting” is the word. Heads roll freely in the new series. They also bounce and spurt; they are impaled on stakes and dropped into unsuspecting laps. If Shakespeare’s vexed succession of English kings is the original game of thrones, then these are the Bleeding Years.

“War is a horrible thing,” says Cooke. “It’s about people dying, and I wanted to honour the truth of that situation. But if we showed what medieval warfare was really like, people would be unable to watch.”

The BBC’s 2012 adaptation of The Hollow Crown showcased different directors for each film but all three films in the new series are directed by Cooke and executive-produced by Sam Mendes. These are Cooke’s first films and they make up a spectacular debut. Equally at home with Shakespeare and new playwrights (he is credited with turning round the fortunes of the Royal Court Theatre, where he was artistic director, 2007–13), he brings a sense of immediacy and contemporary comment to some of Shakespeare’s least digestible drama. It’s safe to say the Henry VI plays, stiff with battles and constitutional wrangling, will never top a poll of most popular Shakespearean works, but in Cooke’s action-packed edit, they provide an engrossing foundation for the psychological masterpiece of Richard III.

“We’re used to seeing Richard as a fully formed psychopath,” he explains. “I see him as a child of war, traumatised by watching his younger brother, Edmund, killed. Post-traumatic stress disorder was only coined as a term in the 1980s, yet here is Shakespeare writing in 1602 and his insight is incredible.”

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Luke Treadaway

Academics, including the historian Simon Schama, have characterised the history plays as Shakespeare’s patriotic attempt to legitimise the Tudor dynasty. Cooke takes a wider view: “The thing with Shakespeare is that he’s so complex and brilliant that any time he puts forward an idea, there’s always the opposite built into the play. For me, these plays are much more about what sort of personality suits power, and what goes wrong with the commonwealth when you have the wrong person in power.

“Whenever his plays are performed, Shakespeare always speaks to the times. We knew when we were shooting these films that there were parallels with what’s going on in the world today. Look at the US presidential elections. Think about how and why political parties have turned to violence or decided to go to war – we’ve lived through a series of disastrous decisions in the Iraq war which we’re still paying for. There are major issues of revenge in these plays, and we see the politics of revenge playing out every day in the Middle East.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the wars quite bloody; I didn’t want to pull any punches, because it’s very important for viewers to understand what war is like. The mass graves in the final scene of the series deliberately recall Belsen or Srebrenica. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be shocking because this is what happens when we lose our moral compass this can be the consequence of decisions made in cabinet rooms. Shakespeare embraces horror because it’s part of the human experience, and I think we have to do the same.”

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Tom Sturridge and Sophie Okonedo

If TV audiences warm to Shakespeare, says Cooke, it’s because Shakespeare, in many ways, defined the modern medium: “I think there’s something about the way we think about film which has come from the Jacobeans and evolved into something else. Shakespeare came up with the idea of the multi-locational story, he invented that.”

It’s an idea that is fully exploited in The Wars of The Roses, with stunning locations ranging from Gloucester Cathedral, Leeds Castle and Alnwick Castle to the Brecon Beacons and the Peak District.

“Shakespeare invented soap opera with Henry VI, too,” Cooke continues. “It’s that basic soap progression; two families, tension within them, families in conflict. The play is more than that, of course, but it was a huge commercial success for Shakespeare, which is why he wrote sequels. When you think how Shakespeare evolves – in just two years – between writing Henry VI Part I and Richard III, it’s truly extraordinary.”

Cooke has no ambitions to present the “definitive” version of these histories. If purists baulk at his choices, so be it. He stands by them, citing Shakespeare himself as someone who “played fast and loose” with historical events. “Even if you were to do the whole text uncut, on stage, the minute you cast an actor, you’re making a choice; the minute you put a piece of scenery on stage, you’re presenting a particular vision. There’s always an element of authorship. I feel quite free in that, and it made this a very creative and enjoyable thing to do.”

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The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses begins on BBC1 today (Saturday 7th May) at 9.00pm with Henry VI Part 1