The jewel in the crown of Sir Michael Boyd’s decade as director of the Royal Shakespeare Company was his 2007–8 staging of the major Shakespeare Histories from Richard II, through Henry IV, V and VI, to Richard III. For a short, alas too short, period, the entire sequence of eight plays could be seen over a few days at Stratford. Fortunate indeed were those who were there, and I count it one of my greatest theatrical experiences.
Boyd’s Histories would have enthralled only the tiniest fraction of the population. But with television it’s a different story. BBC2’s four Histories films, packaged as The Hollow Crown and broadcast on consecutive Saturday evenings, stand to have a far greater impact. With perfect timing this contribution to the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival has gone out before the sporting jamboree takes over London and deluges the media.
The experience of Shakespeare on film is of course very different from that on the stage. But having too frequently suffered in the theatre from indifferent to downright deadly productions, I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare on screen. Immersed at home with DVD and iPlayer, there is nothing nicer than to come up for air or something stronger in the middle of something good. And then, ah yes, there are the words.
As I’ve too often moaned on about in these pages, the clarity of stage diction at the RSC, and to be fair more generally, seems to have fallen away proportionately with the rise of programme credits for ‘voice work’. Thrust stages, such as that at the Globe and now in all three theatres at Stratford, are a serious obstacle to the delivery and audience comprehension of the text. But on film there can be no excuse. One of the many pleasures of The Hollow Crown is to see the actors mining the meaning of their lines, relishing their poetry and imagery, and delivering them as though new-minted.
And what actors! Here we have Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, David Suchet and Lindsay Duncan as the Yorks, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal and Henry V; this is no more than a sampling of the starry cast. What’s remarkable is how these famous actors are totally integrated into what in stage parlance would be called ‘ensemble’. For this we can thank Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris as presiding architects of The Hollow Crown, and directors Rupert Goold (Richard II), Richard Eyre (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and Thea Sharrock (Henry V).
As the billing has it, the plays are set ‘in the medieval period’ and not, as you could well have imagined, in some Middle Eastern war zone. The ‘relevance’ is confidently left between the lines and to the theatre of our own imagination.
The three Henrys are in relatively traditional style. But Goold’s take on Richard II is strikingly original and for my money the best of the bunch. His costuming is that of the faux-medievality of the Pre-Raphaelites and of the German Nazarene. He depicts Richard and his favourites as religious aesthetes rather than out-and-out wastrels. The chain-mail bent of Rory Kinnear’s Bolingbroke and the feuding barons is discomfited and enraged by the soft, almost Hamlet-like introspection of Whishaw’s Richard. But he’s also quite blatantly a Christ-like figure, a Saint Sebastian in love with the arrows with which he’s so savagely despatched (deeply shocking here that Goold has Richard’s best friend Aumerle turn Judas and be the first to shoot). Some may find the allusive imagery overdone — Richard rides a white donkey into captivity — but it meshes perfectly with Whishaw’s intelligent and moving inhabitation of the poetry.
All through The Hollow Crown the religious ambience is powerfully created by the many scenes filmed in the cathedrals of Gloucester and St David’s. In the three Henry plays, the cold and stony vastness of the seat of regal power contrasts with the welcoming disorder and alcoholic glow of the Boar’s Head. With Julie Walters presiding as Mistress Quickly, Richard Eyre’s tavern scenes are always energised, funny and deeply touching, as in Falstaff’s failing hold on Hal and his parting from Maxine Peake’s Doll Tearsheet. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff is as richly human a portrayal as you’re likely to see. It has charm, dignity, vulnerability and a heart-wrenching pathos. Even when effectively down and out, it’s a delight to see him outwit the sour implacability of Geoffrey Palmer’s Lord Chief Justice.
Tom Hiddleston has the perfect handsome looks for Hal and the intelligence to match. From the start Hiddleston shows how he’s already distancing himself from Falstaff; the transition from prodigal to prince is marked by tensely dramatic scenes with his father (Jeremy Irons). As the story develops you understand how it was his tavern education that gave the future King Henry the rapport with the common soldier that serves him so well at Agincourt. Yet Hiddleston knows exactly how to use his talent for informality and the sudden winning smile as weapons in the service of the steely resolve that had all too quickly deserted Henry IV. Impressively, but perhaps a touch mystifyingly for the uninitiate, Henry V opens with his funeral and it’s only at the end that John Hurt’s unseen ‘Muse of Fire’ Chorus and storyteller is revealed as the grown-up version of Falstaff’s percipient boy servant.
The most hauntingly memorable performance is Jeremy Irons’s Henry IV. As he fights a losing battle with his usurper’s guilt, he probes and tastes each word for its meaning and significance, his pitch-black eyes searching for enemies and vainly for a true friend in his fearful, lonely world. Unable to sleep, he wanders through his palace past guards with bowed heads fighting to stake awake. As the moonlight floods across the floor he reaches his throne at exactly the right moment for a scarcely muttered ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. All too soon he is passing that burden to Hal, dying on his feet even as he puts the crown on his son’s head.
Taken as a whole, these four films will give huge pleasure. They are of course adaptations, cut to running times of around two hours each. It was, I thought, good riddance to swathes of unfunny tavern banter and there was little text I actually missed. When scenes are rearranged it’s always to good dramatic purpose. Battlefield action is thrillingly filmed, the camera unsparing in its depiction of the wounded and dead. Here is no glorification of war, no jingoism, only a fair presentation of its imperatives and human cost.
In the past, BBC television hasn’t had the happiest relationship with specially commissioned Shakespeare. These new films really are extraordinarily good and an outstanding contribution to the much trumpeted 2012 World Shakespeare Festival. We must hope that The Hollow Crown, supported as it has been by revelatory documentaries fronted by the likes of James Shapiro, Simon Schama, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and David Tennant, will mark a watershed. They’ll surely enjoy a significant worldwide afterlife as feature films in their own right and on DVD.