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Clinching the title of Pope Alexander VI was an ambitious undertaking laden with treachery, blackmail, bribery, lust, orgies, revenge, a soupçon of incest, and politics, for Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) and his notorious family. While television and film adaptations of his controversial figure’s reign abound, The Borgias creator Neil Jordan says he didn’t have to take creative liberties as the historical narrative was salacious enough. Debashine Thangevelo offers a peek into the second season of the show that has surpassed The Tudors and been commissioned for a third instalment…
HISTORICAL figures and events are a fertile playground for film-makers. And a profusion of small and big screen offerings capturing icons and divisive figures over the decades has supported this trend.
On the television front, Boardwalk Empire, Rome and The Tudors have all made a big impression in recent times. Covering the documented stories of Nucky Thompson, who blurred the lines between politician and gangster; to chronicling the meteoric rise of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus, also known as Gaius Octavian; and exploring the period of Henry VIII’s rule, these series left viewers spellbound.
Aside from Jeremy Iron’s lead role as Rodrigo Borgia and, later, Pope Alexander VI, in The Borgias, the period drama, which magni- ficently captures the politics and religion of the 16th century, has earned a loyal following.
In the first season, Borgia’s papacy was shrouded in morally-questionable actions that were orchestrated by his family and himself. Amid the bribery, backstabbing, infidelity and betrayal, he managed to retain his position despite the artful plotting of his demise by his rivals – mainly Cardinal Della Rovere.
The second instalment echoes the central premise of the attempts to usurp Pope Alexander VI, while bolstered by subplots involving the personal dramas and conflicts encountered by his children: son Cesare (François Arnaud), who is the pope’s consigliere, daughter Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger), who has a relationship bordering on incest with her brother Cesare and is the apple of her father’s eye, and, lastly, Juan (David Oakes), who is known for his brutish ways.
With the follow-on season is suspended on the growing poverty and squalor permeating the streets of Rome, the pope has to find a way to alleviate the problem while at the same time dealing with his sons’ rivalry that could undo the power his family has so far wielded as a united front.
Although Oakes’s character was meant to be killed off much earlier in the series, the act was constantly delayed by the makers.
In an interview with Collider.com, Oakes explained: “It kept on getting longer. At one point, I was going to die in episode seven, then it was episode eight… then nine. I kept on suggesting things all the way. As an actor, you don’t want to be seen to be a bit too hands on with the instruction of the drama because you’re too focused on yourself and not the overall.
“But, when, you know, you’re going to die, you’re like, ‘I’m going to take as much as I can’. There’s the scene with myself and Jeremy (Irons) and the dagger which I hold to my throat and that was a scene I really fought for. I was determined to have a proper confrontation. I really wanted to have him up against the wall, but they thought that was a bit too far, so we subverted it and made it a slightly more complex arrangement of risk.
“There were a lot of scenes like that where the focus was twisted to be much more family-centric. It wasn’t simply about the eventual confrontation, but all about the richness of this twisted family’s make up.”
Although his character is far from likable, Oakes says he is flattered by the support he has received since the series started.
“It’s overwhelming because I wasn’t expecting it. I’m playing, what’s on paper, quite an unlikeable character. I don’t try to make him likeable. I try to just make him human. It’s quite exciting, considering.”
Grateful to be working with Irons, Steven Berkoff, Gina McKee, Julian Bleach and Derek Jacobi, Oakes speculates on what viewers can expect in the third series.
He says: “If they (the writers) take all of the intrigue and the mystery they made through Juan and through, subsequently, his removal from the family, they have this huge playground of stuff. The only mistake they could make is just to move on and go, ‘right, what’s next?’
“Season one was about setting up the family and season two, once you’ve already known them, you can then start to dismantle them and show the richness of all the relationships. Hopefully, season three will deal with it, in that way, rather than just putting them into new situations. It’s not a soap. It’s an intricate piece of family drama and political intrigue, at best.”
While the life story of Pope Alexander VI varies depending on whether his legacy is told by his successors or his detractors, viewers can’t help but be enamoured with his success and the rising conflicts within the ambitious family, who put up a united front amid the threat posed by the pope’s biggest adversaries as they try to poison his leadership in Jordan’s interpretation.
• The second season of The Borgias starts on M-Net (DStv channel 101) on Tuesday, August 28 at 10pm.