Clicking through cable TV-land late Christmas Day, I came upon a strange holiday treat: Benedict Cumberbatch playing the star role in Shakespeare's "Richard III."
I found out later that the performance on Georgia Public Broadcasting's local Channel 8 was part of a series of Shakespeare history plays originally produced by the BBC under the "Hollow Crown" rubric.
Although I'd missed the broadcasts of "Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3," I wasn't too confused by all of the characters and dynastic alliances in "Richard III." The saga of the sixth Henry's demise, among Shakespeare's first plays, provides the background for "Richard III."
The play gives a one-sided account of Richard's murderous rise to the English throne and his defeat on Bosworth Field by the man who would become Henry VII. The Tudors' rise ended the "War of the Roses" and led to the eras of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen" who inspired Shakespeare's first flourishing.
I began watching the show five minutes late, thus missing the "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech, Shakespeare's first great monologue.
Cumberbatch, looking into the camera to give Richard's asides to the audience early in the play, portrays the hunchbacked villain as a cynical comedian who at first carries out his political manipulations for sick amusement. As the play progresses, the game grows more and more serious.
One of Shakespeare's earliest plays, "Richard III" lacks the psychological complexity of his later works. The strong cast, which includes Judi Dench as Richard's mother, who also turns against him, finds the dramatic core in a messy play.
Known for his TV portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a contemporary detective, Cumberbatch gives the one-sided villain shades of sympathy and pathos. His lurching walk, and punkish smiles into the screen contrast poignantly with Richard's armor-clad demise, when the dying king glimpses a shadow of greatness.