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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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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