Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Hollow Crown (2012)

I decided to revisit the BBC's impressive 2012 undertaking, the adapting of Shakespeare's historical tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V) under the banner The Hollow Crown - a monumental cultural event alongside their broadcasting of the Olympics that year.

Richard II

Rupert Goold's visually impressive adaptation of Richard II was the rich feast that commenced the BBC's Hollow Crown season in 2012 and Shakespeare's lyrical telling of Bolingbroke, the pragmatic political animal, usurping the crown from his cousin, Richard the divinely appointed yet ineffective king of England speaks with a renewed contemporary resonance and vigour in the post-Arab Spring world.

Ben Whishaw is utterly captivating as Richard, possessing a willowy, effete demeanour throughout that is fitting for a king who believes he is God's representative on Earth rather than a person in his own right. The production had some much publicised fun drawing comparisons with Michael Jackson, the fey, sexually ambiguous and all powerful figure who was so resolutely detached from a world he commanded so much attention from - they even gave him a pet monkey to fool around with in his opulent court! But Whishaw's performance really is a superlative reading, depicting the self possessed, insensitive and almost child-like arrogant character traits of those who believe they are born to rule and therefore have no self doubt in their importance and place in the world when compared to others. I do recall seeing some reviews at the time that, whilst generally praising the performance technically, complained that they were not moved by his Richard in the later stages of the film, specifically when he is confronted by his rebels and later, when they force him in the most public and impersonal of ways to surrender the crown. Well, I believe such criticism holds no water. The nature of the character is, to me, one who is all too self indulgent in his own pity. He is also a performer, constantly playing a role because he feels he is not a person (he does not truly know, or feel comfortable with, who he is until his violent demise in fact) and he is never more so unsure as he is here when forced to strip himself of his anointed role (the beautiful double meaning of the line "Aye no, no aye") and fearing he may lose himself into the bargain - which you can argue is his ultimate fate. So yes, he's ramping the self pity up to eleven, but he still feels the tragedy of his life and Whishaw displays that beautifully. Another fine scene is the one when, adorned in gold armour, he confronts Bolingbroke and his men and threatens them for their proposed coup. The use of close ups here - how we see the sweat run down Whishaw's features, and his knees knocking, despite his brave words and impressive finery - is fantastic and the performance for some reason puts me in mind here of Alan Bates, that other great  black bearded mercurial screen presence. 

But it's not just the Ben Whishaw show and I was equally impressed with Rory Kinnear as his opponent Bolingbroke. Often seen in light comic or supporting roles it was refreshing to see him get something meatier here and he proves himself a good Shakespearean  performer, who plays the complexity and ambiguities of the character - does this man simply want what is rightfully his returned back to him, or is his eye on the main prize all along - extremely well.

Henry IV Part I

Direction and adaptation duties for the second film in The Hollow Crown tetralogy from the BBC fell to Richard Eyre. Whilst Eyre is a great talent it is easy to fall into the trap of finding this a touch disappointing after the visual opulence of Rupert Goold's first film, Richard II. Eyre depicts an England mired in sickness, the colours muddy brown or chilly greys. Tonally it is deeply fitting, as we see both how the now mature Henry IV's grasp on the crown he usurped as a young man is becoming increasingly tenuous, and how he despairs for the future with his feckless gallivanting heir, Prince Hal, but it takes some acclimatising. 

It wouldn't be so bad either if the unnecessary swelling musical score - an occasional distraction in the first film - now constantly emotes and tells the viewer how to feel, like it's been to the John Williams school of 'audiences are all as thick as pigshit' , to the detriment of the sacred text itself.

Still Eyre delivers us some beautiful scenes; the snow covered scenes of battle in the climax may not be historically accurate but they certainly look impressive and add to the bleakness (and since when has historical accuracy ever mattered in Henry IV?!) and through the muddy browns of The Boar's Head, there's the occasional honeyed glow to be had in scenes of warmth and good humour between Hal and Falstaff.

The cast are of course impressive. Jeremy Irons convinces as the ageing King, now guilt burdened from his actions as a youth and ruing the misfortune of fathering, in his view, the wrong Harry when comparing Tom Hiddleston's partygoing Prince to his rival for the crown, Henry 'Harry Hotspur' Percy, played with a chippy Northern arrogance and aggression and with a keen sense of being the other side of the coin by Joe Armstrong (his father Alun plays his character's father too) Equally Hiddleston no doubt makes for a swoonsome Hal, all fresh faced and back slapping good nature, but with a palpable growing maturity as the film reaches its conclusion. There's no ambiguity here in Hiddleston's performance - this is a youth for whom the scales slowly fall from his eyes as he realises the duty awaiting him. The surrogate father arguably keeping him away from such duty is the legendary Sir John Falstaff, played here by Simon Russell Beale who invests the character with a simpering fawning around Hal, making it clear that his interpretation of the role  clearly sees him as an opportunist throughout. Unfortunately Eyre seems to muff much of the comic potential between them in their earlier scenes - Falstaff's return from his botched highway robbery is remarkably tin eared - but he redeems himself with a good account of the play within the play which sees both character's pretend to be the King and advising Hal on what he must now do, with radically different conclusions. 

As with all the films in this season, Henry IV Part 1 is blessed with a strong and colourful supporting cast of some fine British thespians including here Robert Pugh, Michelle Dockery, Julie Walters, Tom Georgeson and, all too briefly, as The Boar's Head strumpet Doll, Maxine Peake. She has little to do here but flash her backside, laugh, grumble and snog Hiddleston and yet - though I may be biased - she catches your eye instinctively. She would prove herself as a fine Shakespearean actor a couple of years later as Hamlet.

Overall, this is a solid and lively enough adaptation which dares to push away from the staginess inherent in such works, but I prefer the wonderful recorded performance from The Globe a couple of years earlier with Jamie Parker as Hal, Oliver Cotton as Henry and a marvellous Roger Allam as Falstaff.

Henry IV Part II

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown"

My, does Jeremy Irons deliver that famous speech in the most beautifully agonising of ways. And, in doing so, he lays claim to the emotional heart of this second part of his King's downfall, the third in the BBC's Hollow Crown series. 

It's perhaps just as well Irons' Henry dominates this concluding chapter of his character's life as director/adapter Richard Eyre finds himself paying for his mistakes in the previous part when it comes to Sir John Falstaff in the previous part; comedy and tragedy is just opposite sides of the same coin, and in Eyre neglecting to mine the traditional comic potential in Part 1, the melancholic Falstaff here has cultivated little goodwill and sympathy to tap from the audience. How are we to mourn the summer days of these characters now in their autumn when no real care was given in depicting them in the first place? It's credit to Russell Beale's performance here that the rather finite fate Eyre elects to depict for Falstaff still delivers some emotional response.

This error, combined with Eyre's resistance of the directorial flair Goold had established in the debut piece, Richard II, preferring instead to focus on the text, unfortunately marks Part 2 out as a stodgy and meandering instalment, hampered by the inherent downbeat nature of the piece itself. To his credit Eyre greatly captures the sickly pallour of the piece; marrying the King's physical decline with the notion of the country itself sickening in a critical fashion, with 'kin and kind' at each other's throats like antibodies and antigens. But, a good tragedy needs to be more interesting and it is only the skillful performances that keep this away from the doldrums it circles around. James Laurenson, Alun Armstrong, Tom Georgeson, Julie Walters, Maxine Peake (with a bit more to do this time around) Geoffrey Palmer, David Bamber and Iain Glen all add heft and colour but, whilst Hiddleston waits in the wings for his great call in the finale, this is most definitely Irons' show. He visibly grows fragile before our eyes becoming a pallid, slurring spectre wracked with guilt for past deeds that saw him act not just against Richard, the King but - as they believed at the time - against God himself. It's quite a performance and one that, in light of the Falstaff situation, perhaps finally places the character to the fore in a play that does, after all, possess his name.

Henry V

And so the final instalment in the BBC's Hollow Crown series takes us to the fields of Agincourt for Henry V's bloody battle with the French, directed by Thea Sharrock.

At the time of broadcast, Sharrock bemoaned the perennial question that seemed to dog her production; 'are you making the pro-war Henry V or the anti-war Henry V?' There are of course great examples looming over her efforts; in the pro camp it is arguably Olivier's Henry V, made in 1944 when England was in need of a rabble rousing set piece, whilst in the latter there is my personal favourite, Branagh's bleak and bloody 1989 adaptation. But Sharrock wisely is not drawn to either, preferring to create her own vision.

Her handling of Hiddleston's King is an interesting one, playing to the strengths of the actor himself and giving him no respite from her close ups that both capture his handsome features but also the reflections of his thoughts within his eyes to great effect. I wasn't all that convinced by his carefree young Hal in Henry IV Part 1 (and to an extent, Part 2) though I could well see the appeal for his many fangirls. He's much better for me here, inhabiting the private and public faces of the warrior king here in such a way as to leave the audience with the impression that this is a Henry prone to self doubt, even when he is rallying the troops with the infamous 'Once more onto the breach' speeches. I was also impressed with his delivery of the play's most ugliest moments - namely the closing of 'the gates of mercy' at Harfleur - suggesting a steeliness that takes him by surprise as much as those around him.

Unfortunately there's a touch of the historical reenactment society rather than the cast of thousands feel to the battle scenes as befits the BBC budget, but careful, fast moving editing helps more or less to place you in the eye of the storm and disguise the shortcomings.

As with those before, the performances were outstanding and the cream of British talent take their place across the play's events to breathe new life into characters who - in less assured hands - would merely serve as vehicles for Shakespeare's prose. If I had to single any one performer out from the supporting cast I would name Paul Ritter, who delivered a Pistol whose humour and ribaldry is left behind following the horrors he witnesses firsthand at Agincourt and will no doubt change him forevermore. Equally traumatised is Falstaff's page who Sharrock cleverly transforms into John Hurt's Chorus at the close - a lovely touch.

It's a good and fitting final hurrah to the BBC's massive undertaking, but for me Branagh's is still the definitive.

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