Friday, March 12, 2021

'The Great'

12 March 2021

We live in a golden age of television drama but my new favourite is ‘The Great’ – Tony McNamara’s irreverent take on the story of Catherine the Great (available to stream on All4). The series starts with the teenage Catherine travelling from Germany to marry the Russian Emperor Peter. But this version of history is, as the show’s subtitle constantly reminds us, “an occasionally true story”. ‘The Great’ is very dark comedy – incredibly violent, crude and sweary. It’s like a cross between Yorgos Lanthimos’ film ‘The Favourite’ (starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, reviewed here in January 2019), Armando Iannucci’s film ‘The Death of Stalin’ and Noah Hawley’s ‘Fargo’ (reviewed here in October 2017). The first series is maybe a couple of episodes too long and could do with a few more sub-plots, but it builds a brilliant group of grotesque but likeable characters, played by a fantastic cast. Elle Fanning is naive, idealistic, determined and ruthless as Catherine, and Nicholas Hoult makes Peter a true monster who gradually becomes more sympathetic. Phoebe Fox, who we last saw as an excellent Ophelia in Simon Godwin’s National Theatre production of ‘Twelfth Night’ (reviewed here in April 2017), is wonderful as Marial, Catherine’s cynical maid. Adam Godley is a menacing presence as the scheming Archbishop (‘Archie’) and Sacha Dhawan is Count Orlo who clearly believes himself to be the only sane man in the Palace. I loved Belinda Bromilow’s scatty Aunt Elizabeth with her trained troupe of butterflies. But Douglas Hodge steals the show as Velementov – the drunken General in charge of the Russian army – demonstrating some fantastic slapstick skills and obviously having a ball. ‘The Great’ will not be to everyone’s taste: the laugh-out-loud moments are matched by as many look-away acts of violence. But I’m really looking forward to season 2.

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