Interview by Mary Comerford
With a star-studded cast including Benedict Cumberbatch and Judi Dench, this series of three feature-length films completes the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays which began four years ago with Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. The action this time focuses on the bitter battle for power between the houses of York and Lancaster, known as the Wars Of The Roses, and opens with Henry VI Part One. TV Choice caught up with Hugh Bonneville, who plays Duke of Gloucester, and Sophie Okonedo, the monarch’s steely wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou…
Hugh, tell us a bit about Gloucester’s role in the story…
Hugh Bonneville: He was left in charge of the young baby, Henry VI, as Lord Protector and was very much an avuncular or even paternal figure. During the course of Henry VI Part One, the young king starts to find his voice and Gloucester realises there are darker forces at work around the court who will nudge him out the way. I think Shakespeare feels sorry for him too, he’s the only genuinely sympathetic character throughout the play. The man who says ‘I’ve done no wrong’ and he really has done no wrong. He’s pretty much framed and before you know it he’s dead in his cell in the Tower of London, leaving the way for Richard III [Benedict Cumberbatch] to go and kill anyone else who’s in the way! His death is a catalyst for the Wars of the Roses but by then, his power’s in the dust.
You mentioned Richard, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, do you think he will encourage a new audience to Shakespeare?
Hugh: Certainly, which can only be a good thing because these are the best stories ever written.
What was it like to be involved in such a project?
Hugh: The first read through with 60 or 70 actors over the course of one day, all in the same room, from Judi and Benedict through the ranks was great. Everyone has got vast experience of Shakespeare, so it was wonderful to be back in that world. I was in the RSC for three years and I grew up loving Shakespeare.
And you’re reunited with Sally Hawkins, your wife in Paddington, who also plays your other half in this…
Hugh: It’s a very happy coincidence. We’re obviously playing exactly the same gags as we did in Paddington, slightly different outfits though!
Turning to you Sophie, Margaret is quite a player isn’t she?
Sophie Okenodo: She ends up marrying Henry VI, becomes queen and through time becomes very involved in trying to keep power. He’s not kingly material so she almost has to take over.
What’s the marriage like, is there love?
Sophie: Oh yeah, she really loves him, that’s how I’m playing it anyway. I don’t think it’s all about the power, it was a divine right that he was made king and their child is next in line.
Did you know these plays?
Sophie: I haven’t done much Shakespeare before, even though I was with the RSC – I didn’t do any Shakespeare when I was there – so I did a lot of work before I started. Richard III is well known but the Henry plays are quite complicated, although some of the things people say, and the situations, are so current. It’s incredibly bloody, particularly the middle film!
We’ve seen you recently in Undercover, which is the complete opposite of this – your roles are very varied.
Sophie: I try to choose things that interest me and I feel I’ve got a range, I don’t feel I’m stuck in one thing. I’m so lucky, my career’s more interesting now than it’s ever been. My daughter’s older now so I can travel – not many people skip to work like I do.
You’ve managed to juggle work in Britain and America, where you won an Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda, is it important to have a dual career?
Sophie: I didn’t feel desperate to be anywhere, which is a good place to be. It just seemed to happen really easily, I haven’t had to fight to get stuff. I’m not sure I’ve got the staying power for that, I probably wouldn’t still be doing it if I had to really claw my way up.