One of the by-products of this year’s Cultural Olympiad and the Summer Of Shakespeare was the BBC’s ambitious plan to bring the Bard’s Henriad tetralogy (sorry, it’s Shakespeare and therefore long words are compulsory) to the screen. Under the title The Hollow Crown we get Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V, which cover one period of British history from the rise of Henry IV and the usurpation (another good long word there) of Richard II, through the reign of Henry’s son, Henry V.
While the three Henrys tell one interlinked story with many recurring characters, Richard II is a bit of a play on its own, even though it deals with some of the same people. It’s also probably the least known of the plays, often regarded as one of Shakespeare’s more difficult texts, but as Rupert Goold’s two-hour take on the tale proves, it’s also one of the richest.
Ben Whishaw takes on the title character, a king who absolutely believes he’s been appointed by God to rule, and so pretty much runs the country by ear, thinking that simply because he’s doing it, it must be the right thing. Richard is called in to arbitrate a dispute between the nobles Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) and Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy), deciding that they must both be banished from England’s shore. Along with Richard’s unpopular, capricious way of ruling (at least it’s unpopular with the nobles), this helps set up Henry’s return to challenge the throne, which forces the king to re-evaluate all he believed to be true.
Although Goold rather rams the allusions to Jesus and St. Sebastian down our throats (which are sometimes thematically awkward anyway), it’s largely a wonderfully lyrical and spiritual take on the play. Initially I felt there were problems in removing the play from the stage and not massively upping the scale. Scenes that make sense with only a few people in the theatre seem somewhat bizarre when played out in an empty field or a massive beach. However then it all begins to make sense, highlighting the pomposity of self-delusion Richard lives under. When Richard returns from Ireland all dressed up to the nines and makes a speech on the shores of his realm, you start to realise quite how detached from reality he’s become when he’s playing out his regal role but only speaking to a few sycophants.
It’s helped tremendously by the performances, in particular Whishaw, who manages to be shallow yet complex and magnificently portrays the journey Richard II goes on, from a man who sees his life as a performance – playing out the role of someone who sees himself as a kind of messiah – through a spiritual and personal crisis that actually makes him a martyr to kingship.
I know it’s open to interpretation, but I’m sure I’m not the only one that sees this Richard as, well, more than a little gay (which is why I included this release in the gay interest film reviews section of the site). He’s soft, slightly effeminate, incredibly fashion-conscious and more interested in hanging out with his pretty young male friends than dealing with the hard, conspiratorial side of the violent medieval world he lives in. He even appears to have a boyfriend in the form of Aumerle (which makes the conclusion of the play all the more powerful).
It’s difficult to know if Shakespeare was actually suggesting Richard liked a bit of man-love (history itself seems undecided), but it’s surprisingly present in the text once Goold’s adaptation brings it out. Indeed, when Henry returns and starts to talk about why he should take the throne, it can almost be boiled down to him saying, ‘Sorry, but Richard’s just too gay to be king’ (and if you read those last few words and the tune to The Lion King’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait To be King’ sprang into your head, you are too gay to be king too). I know some will think I’m talking rubbish, but it genuinely did begin to feel like a play about 14th Century homophobia.
Although it’s the first part of four, Richard II stands of its own, both in terms of the text and Goold’s rather spiritual, poetic way of bringing it to the screen. In contrast, the other three are more straightforward historical romps. Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes On A Scandal) takes on both parts of Henry IV. Eyre eschews Goold’s playful and interpretative take on his text and instead concentrates on performance and the intrigue of the middle-ages Royal Court. He’s helped in this tremendously by having Jeremy Irons as his Henry IV and Loki (aka Tom Hiddleston) as Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V.
It’s always been one of the more interesting things about Shakespeare’s Henry IV, that particularly in Part I, the title character is of secondary importance. While he comes into his own in Part II, the overall trajectory is the rise of Prince Hal from rebellious imp frequenting bawdy houses with his hoi polloi friends (incidentally, why did the phrase ‘bawdy house’ go out of fashion? I think we should use it more) to a king in the making, which then follows through with his plans for the French throne in Henry V.
That said, until relatively recently the plum part in Henry IV Part I was seen as Hotspur, with Hal only taking centre stage in the last century as people have re-evaluated the play. Eyre’s take is to give time to all three sides of the play, which only really come together fully at the Battle Of Shrewsbury towards the end. There’s Henry, who’s disappointed by his son and who feels assailed on all sides, the volatile Hotspur (a brilliant Joe Armstrong) who believes he’s been slighted by the king and starts a rebellion, and the merry-making Hal, who to the outside world seems far from being a future king, but who’s more complex than he first appears. Alongside Hal is the infamous Falstaff, given wonderful life by Simon Russell Beale.
Indeed it’s Beale more than anyone who makes this adaptation. There’s a tendency to play Falstaff purely for laughs, and as a loveable rogue who should be forgiven anything (as he himself believes). However Beale plays it more as it’s actually written, so that while Falstaff is a rascal and a wit, he’s also devious, conniving, incredibly self-centred and often rather nasty. Many Henry IVs see Henry’s eventual rejection of Falstaff as a cruel slight to the common man, with the prince becomes rarefied and snobby, but here’s it’s actually as written – you can feel sorry for the delusional Falstaff, who’s placed all his hopes on a rich reward when Harry is king, but Hal’s rejection of this selfish ‘fool’ is necessary for him to become an effective and just king.
Much of Henry IV Part II deals with Falstaff lining himself up for his rewards, as well as focussing on the ailing king, who still thinks Hal isn’t ready to rule and feels the crown heavy on his head as more people conspire against him and he ruminates on the life he’s lived. Jeremy Irons is great as the title character, showing just the right amount of doubt and tiredness at the difficulty of ruling, while Tom Hiddleston is also good as Hal. Some have criticised him in Henry IV, feeling he’s too cerebral as the rebellious, scallywag Harry, however he’s more what I’ve always thought the part should be. All the way through the play, there’s a calculated edge to Hal, who knows that one day he’s going to have to leave all this behind. Hiddleston brings that forward, so that the prince may be enjoying himself, but he’s knowingly playing at being a commoner, while those around him believe he’s truly one of them.
Of the four plays, Henry V is undoubtedly the best known, largely due to the screen versions from Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. In some respects it’s the weight of these adaptations that slightly hamstrings this version, as well as a rather unclear idea of how it fits with the earlier parts of The Hollow Crown. While Richard II and Henry IV are clearly different beasts with different actors and different aesthetics, Henry V keeps the same performers as Henry IV, but it doesn’t feel like director Thea Sharrock is really continuing the story as told by Richard Eyre. The result is a bit of a hybrid beast, with Hiddleston feeling like he’s playing a different character to the one in Henry IV.
Unfortunately this Henry V never quite decides what it wants to be. It’s neither the patriotic jingoism of Olivier nor the horrors of war of Branagh, but in trying to eschew the weight of what has gone before, it never fully becomes its own film. Some of the most famous speeches, such as ‘Once more unto the breech’ and ‘We happy few’ feel like they’re being so deliberately underplayed they lose what makes them stand out. The latter is done in a vaguely interesting way, but it doesn’t feel like it’s doing what that speech should. More so than the other plays, you can feel how much of the original text has been chopped, and in my opinion it is the wrong bits, as huge swathes dealing with Henry’s ruminations on kingship are cut. Although it creates a leaner, more straightforward Henry V, it robs it of a lot of the thematic interest. That’s particularly true in a series called The Hollow Crown, which is essentially about the nature of being a ruler.
Richard II is about a man obsessed with the divine, symbolic, I-rule-because-God-has-anointed-me idea of kingship, who’s eventually laid low by his hubris, short-sightedness and lack of understanding of human nature. Henry IV is a man haunted by a fear that he hasn’t been given the crown by God – he stole the throne from Richard – and so while he understands the darker side of human intrigue, he never fully comes to terms with the body-politic aspect of being a king. Henry V is where these things come together, in a character whose experiences as a youth give him an understanding of humanity, and who specifically asks God for the right to rule and forgive his father’s usurping of the throne. It’s a play about a king sorting out these two sides of leadership, flitting between raw and sometimes cruel humanity and the strength of being the anointed leader.
However this Henry V underplays what makes the crown hollow, which doesn’t seem quite right. It’s an entertaining watch and the acting is good, but it’s a bit of shame that it feels like the end of a different Prince Hal story than the one we watched in Henry IV. In the ‘making of…’ featurette it’s revealed it was never a foregone conclusion the same actors would stay for Henry IV and V. Despite how good an actor Hiddleston is, I can’t help but feel that with the different tone of the final part of The Hollow Crown, it might have been better to clearly signify this version’s separateness by recasting the role. Henry V is far from bad, but it never quite feels like it’s found it heart.
It is a slight shame the final part of The Hollow Crown is weaker than what’s gone before, but overall this is undoubtedly a triumph. Many will remember being forced to watch dowdy, stagey, cardboard, theatrically overdone 1970s BBC versions of Shakespeare when they were at school. This is a far cry from that, giving the plays a real medieval setting (which admittedly does make it seem everyone in the 14th & 15th Century spent all their time hanging around in churches that are posing as castles) and a far more vital sensation. Even Henry V is far better than most TV we’re given and that’s the weakest of the bunch. Richard II and Henry IV are both superb.
The DVD box set of The Hollow Crown also features short ‘making ofs’ for each of the plays, as well as the long ‘The Making Of A King’ documentary, which takes an overview of the series. All of them are worth a watch.
The ratings success of The Hollow Crown will hopefully convince the BBC to make more Shakespeare with decent budgets and amazing casts (I haven’t even mentioned Patrick Stewart, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Griffiths, Geoffrey Palmer, Alun Armstrong, David Morrissey and loads more show up). That said, it they decide to go with a linked series again (perhaps Shakespeare’s other great tetralogy, encompassing Richard III and Henry VI I-III), it might be an idea to have a stronger overall vision. This is still an absolute must see though.
Overall Verdict: Although it’s a shame Henry V doesn’t quite match the earlier parts of this four-play Shakespearean extravaganza, The Hollow Crown is still a wonderful achievement, bringing the Bard to vivid life and really showing what a great writer he was (and not just because your English teacher told you so).
Reviewer: Tim Isaac