Falstaff take centre stage as The Hollow Crown reveals its brutal truth

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part II – BBC 2

So Shakespeare continues on the BBC with Henry IV Part II and Falstaff discovering just how hollow the crown can be. It remains testament to Shakespeare’s talent that despite the clear danger of offending the monarchy he could write a play about kingship that would show it to be an undesirable burden that turns saviours into tyrants.

The old dying king, Henry IV, is laid bare before the audience; his noble persona stripped aware by a ravaging illness and worn down by the internecine rivalries of his nobles and the licentious behaviour of his heir. The regal nature of Jeremy Iron’s Henry has long since disappeared to be replaced by a solitary figure forced to send others to fight his wars and left to restlessly wander the palace at night exhorting that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” [III.i].

It is worth mentioning that Irons is magnificent as Henry IV – as it is a part often forgotten under the weight of the Hal/Falstaff relationship. Iron’s Henry captures the viewers’ attention with an exceptional understanding of verse speaking and bringing real intelligence to the dialogue. The great speech where he discovers Hal upon the throne and lashes out with “What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour? / Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself” [IV.v] proves one of the real highlights of the series so far and brings just a glimpse of a potential King Lear – a  proposition that really does make the mouth water.

Tom Hiddleston’s Hal does not provide the tempting alternative that Shakespeare would later paint with far more grandeur in Henry V. As with last week, Hiddleston gives us a Hal that, for all his revelry and low-flung behaviour, is very much in control of his character. He may feel warmth to these people but he also is self-aware enough to retain a certain detachment as a king would his subjects. Hal is shown to be the kind of figure who would make a good king but possibly an even better tyrant.

Richard Eyre focusses on melancholy as the central theme of this production of Henry IV Part II. It is a melancholy centred around the relationships Falstaff has throughout the play which draw out his own tragic self-awareness that so often is hidden behind bluster. Simon Russell Beale gives us a Falstaff that continues to scheme but who is fatally unable to change his character and for whom the dead-hand of time continues to advance.

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Much more on BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked here

 

Hiddleston’s impresses as Hal but Eyre’s Henry can’t quite match Goold’s Richard

Henry IV part I: The Hollow Crown – BBC 2  / BBC HD

Following the rapturous reception received by Goold’s treatment of Richard II was always going to be a challenge; the highly experienced Richard Eyre was assigned the task of continuing The Hollow Crown through Henry IV parts I and II, and on last night’s offering is set to deliver a textually inventive if slightly visually austere riposte.

Overall The Hollow Crown concept has been left a little exposed – clever and audience-enticing as it may be – as the stylistic dissimilarities mean that, other than the continuation of history, there is little in Henry IV part I that audiences would recognise from the filmic vistas of Goold’s Richard II.

Fortunately Shakespeare is not constrained by the straightjacket of slick BBC publishing. Henry IV part I is a play that needs no extra gloss; it contains his most-loved character in Falstaff and gives the audience, as Simon Schama pointed to in his recent documentary, a view of England from the bottom-up. This is in direct contrast to a Richard II that inhabited the world of kings and noble elites.

It’s also a play in which Shakespeare sketches out, in Prince Hal, the images that he would shade in later in one of his greatest creations, Hamlet – complete with two fathers (Falstaff and Henry IV pre-empting Claudius and the Ghost) and a play within a play (the great Act II Scene IV where Hal, in the guise of his Father, banishes Falstaff).

There is a seismic shift in language between Richard II and Henry IV. The world of Richard’s verse has been replaced by the more naturalistic prose of Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. It serves to emphasise the working people that inhabit the play; the phrasing and speech reflects the way people actually talk to one another. It reflects a changing England; the shattering of Richard’s divine right and replaced by a, now frail and ill, Henry IV paranoid to the threat of conspirators. There is no place in this landscape for the playful verse that marked Richard II. This point is rammed home by Shakespeare through Harry Percy who ridicules and undercuts the fanciful imagery put forward by Glendower about his birth.

The core of Henry IV is not, of course, the King but his son, Prince Hal. Falstaff may steal the show but he is not the heart; the heart is the relationship of Hal to his two fathers, the King and the Fool, and the inevitable renunciation of the latter in order to safeguard the former.

In this production Eyre appears to have taken a very deliberate step to recast Hal and Falstaff’s relationship away from the loving underpinnings with which it is normally shown. It is usual to show a warmth and affection in Hal when he undercuts Falstaff’s numerous embellishments but here there is coldness in Tom Hiddleston’s Hal. This is introduced from the very opening scenes of the play and Hal’s speech where he talks of renouncing his way of life; it is delivered in voiceover and there is an added potency to lines like ‘So when this loose behaviour I throw off’ [I.ii] given out in contemptuous manner at the same time as Hiddleston’s Hal strides through the Boar’s Head. Outwardly he is smiling, winking, interacting, whilst his interior monologue makes clear he understands that he is just playing a part that will be discarded.

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BBC PR Fails No.2840

I  have much love for the BBC and will loudly and belligerently defend the licence fee against all the nay-sayers who seem to believe that if a multi-channel 24hr/365-day service isn’t absolutely dedicated  to their interests then the whole corporation should be abolished. Personally I think the £140 is a pittance for the level of service they provide and the BBC is one of the last remaining areas of British society in which we can be truly proud and that commands huge respect across the world.

However they really do not do themselves any favours.  Just a week after getting critical and commercial praise for its superb Richard II adaptation – which hugely increased the the interest in the whole cycle of their filmed versions of Shakespeare’s history plays – they have managed to unpick all of that good work with hugely incompetent scheduling made worse by a complete lack of communication to its audience that rivals banks and mobile phone customers in its disregard for its customers.

Now Wimbledon takes place every year and so it should perhaps have crossed the minds of schedulers that the finals may overrun. Perhaps if that is the case then contingency plans might have been put in place to manage the situation. Instead people tuning in to watch Henry IV part I – with A-grade stars Tom Hiddlestone, Simon Russell Beale and Jeremy Irons + a whole host more – were given no information as the Men’s Doubles came to an end.  Not even ‘the scheduled programme has been delayed, more information to come’. Given we were on the verge of a first British success since 1936 I can’t really complain about sticking with the tennis.

But seriously continuing with the tennis on BBC2 for the Ladies Doubles – what is the point of the red button if not for putting minor sport onto that?  And what did people tuning into the BBC’s flagship summer broadcasting get – about 40 minutes late we had John Inverdale haplessly stating that the production ‘may be on later, we’re not sure’ – well thanks John, that really cleared it up for us. Also why the hell was Casualty on BBC1? It may get higher audience ratings but surely it could get bumped for one week? One can only imagine what Lord Reith would have had to say about the way the Beeb have prioritised their  scheduling.

So BBC – by some miracle you had turned Shakespeare into watercooler TV and within a week you have already managed to shaft your own success through the general incompetence, poor management and dire communication that you have become famed for. I am sure your heir-apparent Director-General, George Entwhistle, who was responsible for the Shakespeare cycle must be absolutely delighted with your handling of this one.

For those who want to catch-up with Henry IV part I – it will apparently air on BBC4 tonight at 21.00 (no word on whether it will also be on either BBC HD channels)

Much more on the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked Season.

Masterful Richard II proves the BBC does ‘do’ Shakespeare

Richard II – BBC2 and BBC HD, until late July 2012

Settling into watching Richard II in glorious HD on the BBC last night it was difficult to ignore the Beeb’s previous ill-fated attempts to engage with ‘the Bard’. Whilst Civilian Theatre has a better opinion than most of the BBC’s attempt to film all the Shakespeare plays; where else could we see an Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as the leads, or a young Helen Mirren playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline – it is still hard to avoid the criticisms of wobbly sets and at times really duff stage-to-screen acting.

However the BBC’s reputation has been pulled significantly out of the mire after their last two adaptations of acclaimed stage productions – Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart’s Macbeth- received sensitive transitions. Goold’s Macbeth in particular had a visual style that was magnificently assured given his background as a stage director. So hearing that he had been tasked with opening proceedings with Richard II did a lot to calm the nerves.

This calm was only reinforced by the sweeping shot across Richard II’s court; Ben Wishaw as Richard; Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt; Rory Kinnear as his son, Bolingbroke; the two David’s – Suchet and Morrisey – as father and son of York; and James Purefroy, steaming under armour as Mowbray. It goes without saying that once such accomplished actors are placed in position then there is little left to do but let them unfurl Shakespeare’s glorious language.

Richard II, compared to the rest of the history plays, is difficult. It has less of the cartoonish villain that makes Richard III such a crowd-pleaser; it lacks a comic core of Falstaff or the jingoism of Henry V. It is a wordy play about a poor king and bitter nobles. To make it worse Shakespeare, as a stylistic tic, vastly increases the amount of rhyming verse. For those untrained in plays of the era the language is often perceived to be a barrier – and Richard II does risk encapsulating everything that people think they dislike about Shakespeare – it is difficult, unnatural and can be hard to follow.

Goold and the cast respond to this challenge magnificently. For perhaps the first time we see that TV could have the edge of stage productions in some aspects. The history plays, far more than the tragedies and comedies, are complex, difficult and rely on a certain level of prior-knowledge that Shakespeare contemporaries would have had but that current audiences, for the most part, lack.

The ability to zoom-in, jump-cut and provide proper location filming – sweeping landscapes and equisite interiors that provide a true sense of time and place – thus provides an essential element in driving the plot. No longer must we scan the faces of a court scene to decide who Richard is castigating, the camera does this for us. Some may cry foul but this is both good TV – no-one needs completely static shots – and also good for accessibility. It is a period location but that does not mean that modern stylistic devices shouldn’t be used.

Goold deserves a huge amount of credit. This, and his Macbeth, were excellent adaptations that demonstrated he has a natural eye for balance and an assured touch. He may well work alongside a mighty fine cinematographer but having seen a number of his plays staged, it is clear that he has an innate understanding of composition and brings to the theatre filmic elements and here he proves he can work his artistry in reverse.

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Watch out George R. R. Martin, Shakespeare’s coming

The BBC certainly seem to have taken a leaf out of HBO’s book with their new preview trailer for their Shakespeare Unlocked series. Right down to the title ‘The Hollow Crown’ – a fabulously fantasy touch – they have gone out of their way to draw on the huge water-cooler success of Game of Thrones.

With season 2 drawing to a close on Sky Atlantic, it seems like the perfect opportunity to launch The Hollow Crown – four successive history plays from Richard II through to Henry V. The cast looks suitably stellar as every high-profile actor going has put themselves forward for some high profile thesping. The limited casting released on the BBC Website hints at the quality – Rory Kinnear, Tom Hiddlestone, Ben Wishaw and the mighty Patrick Stewart (getting the rights to one of Shakespeare’s most well known speeches in ‘this royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle…’). 

And the trailer? Well isn’t this just mouthwatering.