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.

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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.

Richard II. William Shakespeare. (Part of the 2012 BBC series The Hollow Crown.)

Ben Whishaw as Richard II. BBC image.

Richard II is a play which I know pretty well. I have studied it and it was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw on stage. I have seen it four times on stage altogether over the years and loved Derek Jacobi in the previous BBC version. Richard himself is a great part and none of my four stage Richards, Ian Richardson, Michael Pennington, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes were a disappointment. I can still remember how wonderfully Ian Richardson played the deposition scene, and how moving Ralph Fiennes was in the great final speech at the end, a small lost figure enclosed in a tiny square prison of light inside the vastness of the old Gainsborough studios. It is poetry which resonates all the more for having seen how Richard’s own insensitivity, foolishness and egotism led to his downfall. It had to come, but it still breaks your heart to see it happen as you understand that he has now learned what he needed to know about himself as a man, rather than a king, but just too late. I can remember my English teacher talking about how people cried in the theatre when Gielgud played that scene. I bet they did. It is a play full of poetry, the only Shakespeare play written entirely in blank verse, which also responds to being given beauty in its setting. The Almeida production filled the end of the Gainsborough studios with a stark beauty made of weathered brick and real trees, and the RSC production with Jeremy Irons was like a beautifully lit gleaming book of hours set on stage. A really great production of this play is a very special thing to see.

The BBC have returned to it again in summer 2012 as part of their hollow crown season with a fine cast and Rupert Goold directing. I was very excited to see it, but also just a bit concerned. This is a play that I have strong feelings about and if they didn’t get it right I was not going to like seeing it let down. Some of the old BBC Shakespeares (not Richard II thankfully) were distinctly dodgy. On the whole I needn’t have worried. There is some fine acting on show and that will always come first for me. Ben Whishaw is every bit as good as his many fans would have hoped as Richard. He looks wonderful and has the right capricious, insular, self obsessed, other worldly quality to play a monarch who is so in thrall to the trappings of the divine role of King that he has lost sight of everything else, including himself. You can see his thoughts flicker across his face and while this is sometimes deeply distasteful it works beautifully at the end of the play when there is nowhere left for him to hide from himself, nobody else for him to define himself by, and he is forced to meet himself face to face. There is some great support from some of our most experienced actors. David Suchet is a strong and believable York- a part that can look foolish if it is played badly- Patrick Stewart gives one of Shakespeare’s finest speeches as good a reading as you could hope for as John Of Gaunt, and it was a complete joy to see an actor of David Bradley’s stature giving real life to the tiny part of the gardener. Casting of such depth is probably the main reason for putting Shakespeare on screen where it will never quite belong.

When it comes to the direction by Rupert Goold I do have some reservations. There are some nice touches, like the way Richard feeds his monkey during the scene at the opening where Mowbray and Bolingboke are being banished, and there are some beautifully shot interior cathedral and tent scenes which work really well, but I’m not sure it was wise to open up the play to include exterior scenes. The famous hollow crown speech is not improved by being spoken by a Richard who has been wading around on a beach looking for all the world like Lawrence of Arabia. The religious iconograpy where Richard rides on a white donkey and is finally shot repeatedly by crossbow like St Sebastian is justified but rather too heavy handed for my taste. The play stands or falls on its poetry and you really shouldn’t let anything else distract from that. A lesser Richard II than Ben Whishaw would have sunk without trace when asked to carry the weight of all that. I am thrilled to have had the chance to see that performance close up.

For all my doubts this film was basically a success for me and I am heartened by it and looking forward to my other loves, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V. I have a feeling that I shall like the Henry IV’s even better.