The Wars of the Roses. The final three parts of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

i624

The Wars of the Roses, the final section of the BBC’s The Holllow Crown season is beautifully done. There are some fine performances from a great cast that you will never see together on stage and some well judged and beautiful cinematography. On the whole it works like a dream- I even forgive the adaptor Dominic Cooke for cutting Jack Cade’s rebellion. I watched the whole lot in a single day which speaks for itself. This is much the best way to see the plays- Henry VI edited down into two parts followed by Richard III- as it allows you to see the full sweep of the story, especially that of two of the main characters, Margaret of Anjou and Richard III himself. A fearsome warrior Queen who becomes the traumatised wreck of her former self and a young man, already emotionally damaged by his physical disability, who sees his family destroyed and becomes a vengeful psychopath caring only for himself. It was the Henry VI plays that established Shakespeare’s reputation- blood and thunder has always been popular.

The first half of Henry VI is dominated by two powerful aristocratic courtiers, Somerset and Plantagenet, who are frustrated by King Henry’s otherworldly inability to do what is required of him as king. He is kind but weak, not what you want at a time of looming civil war, an easy target for ambitious, rich men on the make. Ben Miles is absolutely mesmerising as Somerset. You can see exactly what he is thinking as he works out how to find a chance to wield power through his relationship with Queen Margaret and it is chilling. Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet- the head of the family whose claim to the throne threatens the King most- is a nice contrast to Somerset, all fire and action. He makes the most of great lines like the one where Joan of Arc shows him Talbot’s body. “Oh, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned that iron rage might shoot them in your faces”.
Sophie Okonedo is perfect casting for Queen Margaret. It is one of the great parts in Shakespeare if you have the chance to play it across all three plays and she has every bit of the fire and venom that it needs.

The second part of Henry VI (mostly from part three) is action packed and there is more blood as the Plantagenet family rise against Henry and he ends up all but defeated, brokering a deal to stay on the throne for his lifetime and shamefully disinheriting his son. It seems like they have won, but there is a cancer hidden in the heart of their family- Richard of Gloucester- who will destroy their victory for his own personal gain. As Edward settles into his reign we know this all too well even if he doesn’t. Benedict Cumberbatch is fascinating to watch as he works away on the edges of scenes, with relatively few lines, showing everything that we need to know. By the end of the play he has done what his father stopped short of and killed an anointed king. There is nothing he will not do.

Richard III is a great play. It works like a modern thriller- think House of Cards- when it is on stage and it needs little editing. It belongs on stage- the device of allowing Richard to let the audience into the secrets of his villainy while fooling those around him is pure theatre, thrilling and sometimes very funny. For me this play is never going to work as well on screen as it does on stage when it is done to full effect but my goodness Benedict Cumberbatch gives it his best shot, talking to the camera, absolutely embracing Richard’s wickedness without any apology, and producing a full on, bravura performance. I did miss some of the humour that I know is there- the wooing of Lady Anne and the scene where “pious” Richard “reluctantly” agrees to be king can be laced with black comedy- but I think that this was perhaps because something about the events being filmed rather than staged made what we were watching too real to laugh at. This play really is a collusion between Richard and the audience, it is him saying to us look how clever I am, and you need to have that direct contact with a man on stage to really get the full effect. I have also seen the relationship between Buckingham and Richard come across more strongly. We should know immediately that when Richard says to him “I am not in the giving mood” he is making a huge mistake that will lead to his downfall. He has not done his villainy alone and if Buckingham’s contribution is not acknowledged and rewarded as promised Richard will be taken down. This is his only real collaborative relationship in the play and he has not grasped its importance to his future.
I think that because Richard III is so fast moving and claustrophobic I was less tolerant of the opening out that inevitably comes when it is directed for cinema. I really didn’t want the ending to be undercut by showing Queen Margaret wandering around the battlefield for example. Having said that these three plays on film, along with the rest of The Hollow Crown are a fine, lasting achievement and I’m glad to have had the chance to see them.

Henry IV Part Two. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. BBC image.

The second part of the BBC’s Henry IV is a real gem, building on everything that was established in the first part, developing the characters and allowing some powerful pay offs from the work that has been done in the early scenes, while also introducing new things to admire. If you are looking for any criticism I’m afraid that you are not going to find it here. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff shows new facets of a complex man. He is very moving indeed in the scene where he takes his leave of Doll Tearsheet (played quite beautifully by Maxine Peake) and also, at times, deeply dislikeable. I would have liked more humour, but this part is a difficult trick to pull off for an actor and perhaps you can’t have everything. There are two particularly delightful supporting performances, from David Bamber as Justice Shallow (one of my favourite minor Shakespearean characters) and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. The scene where Shallow is looking back with Falstaff at the “days that we have seen” made me ache for their past and what they have lost, and it was good to see Geoffrey Palmer fleshing out the bones of a deeply dislikable, pragmatic politician. One look spoke volumes. Lovely work. I am also going to give a cheer for young Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page. A very truthful and mature performance.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. BBC image.

But my goodness what about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal! The scene where Hal tries on the crown, thinking that his father will never wake again, and then has to face his dying fathers rage at what he has done, talking him round and gaining his trust, was simply outstanding. It is great writing, one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and he just took it and ran with it. There is nowhere to hide when you are being filmed in close up and we saw every thought. When he made his great speech to his father we already knew that he meant every word because we had seen it in his face as he tried on the crown. He had managed to make Hal’s thoughts visible. There is no doubt in my mind now that Jeremy Irons also gives the greatest performance of his career. The two of them strike sparks off each other. At the end of the play, when Hal disowns Falstaff, we see the results of this epithany. It is an action without spite. He knows what he has to do, and he knows that it has to be done publicly. It is the Lord Chief Justice who finishes the job with brutal efficiency on behalf of his new master. Hal has taken on the heavy duty and responsibility of a monarch and while he admits to his brothers that his new role doesn’t suit him as well as it may appear to do there is no doubt that we now have a hero who will fulfill it and make England proud.

The settings are quite beautiful, richly textured and atmospheric, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with some wonderful close ups that lead us into the heart of the characters. Evocative of a timeless England and a whole society which is still recognisable to us today. Great directing from Richard Eyre.

There is nothing quite like watching a great production on stage, being there and breathing the same air as the actors, but I am deeply grateful that this Henry IV is on film and on record for all time. It really deserves to be………. and if the RSC cast Tom Hiddleston in anything in the future (something they should just get on with ASAP) nothing on earth will stop me buying a ticket.

Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.