Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Hollow Crown

BBC, July 2012

Richard II dying as Saint Sebastian, one of the more intriguing, and odd images from the first part of the series.

Shakespeare’s great history tetralogy flattened into a TV costume drama, but still an incredibly powerful (and draining) examination of glory. 

This is the BBC’s cultural contribution to a summer celebrating the Olympics in London and the British Queen’s sixtieth jubilee. It should long outlast these tenuous associations.

A ‘hollow crown’ doesn’t strike me as the right image for this cycle of Shakespeare’s history dramas, Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V. A quote from the hapless Richard, it requires cunning to apply it to Henry V, widely regarded as the greatest English hero in the author’s time, and now forgotten except as the elevated hero of his drama. 

A better metaphor for these films might involve the sun, at first clouded and then shining forth. This is how both the foolish Richard and the brilliant Henry see themselves, and the eclipse of the first is necessary for the advent of the second. 

With the exception of Henry IV part 2, these four dramas could stand alone, and often do, powerfully. Put together, something even greater emerges (again the sun metaphor).  

Broadly, we see the removal of a weak leader eventually in favour of a strong one. Take just the example of the Welsh. Richard loses their favour, Henry IV must fight with them, until Henry V unites them in his victorious band of brothers.

It is jarring that Thea Sharrock, director of Henry V, starts and ends with the king’s too-young dead body, even if this is hinted by the Chorus. As an attempt to show the follies of imperial ambition, this is timely and fits with the ‘hollow crown’ concept, but it goes completely against what we have previously experienced of Henry V. 

That Shakespeare was nuanced even in his portrayal of a great conquering hero, is to his eternal credit. But I think directors fail when they try to detract further from Harry’s greatness, for it’s fairly clear we see him as great, even if we no longer feel war is glorious (or do we? Many of us apparently do)

Henry is as great a hero as ever depicted, as great as Homer's Achilles or the Hebrew Bible's David, and in no way tragic. We are rightly uneasy with his kind of heroism, but then again, Shakespeare is there before us, if we consider these dramas a tetralogy. Prince Hal is given the greatest possible foil, in mighty Falstaff.  

For Henry’s later successful quest for glory, we have Falstaff’s earlier credo against it. At an only slightly lesser leverl, we also have Hotspur’s failed example. Some scholars seek a theory of success from these contrasts, but my experience, when watching these dramas, is one of random chance. Hotspur is just unlucky.  

Likewise Richard, who after all, goes to Ireland in order to live up to his bloodthirsty predecessors in glory. That he shares something of Hal’s poetic nature, and that these two have more in common than either does with the surly Bolingbrook, later Henry IV, is another of the rich and puzzling Shakespearean contrasts. 

By now it should be clear I find it wonderful merely to have the opportunity to watch these dramas, and make these contrasts, and reflect deeply on the costs and types of success, as opposed to just surviving. Whether they are well done or not seems an ungrateful afterthought. 

Applying grubby nitpicking to these generous TV films, directorial invention broadly decreases as the series progresses. But the production teams are saddled with a deadening overall concept – that these films must have roughly historically accurate settings. Squeezing the anachronistic, theatrical Bard into a historical straitjacket is a painful business; that his powerful effect survives is a miracle, but it does. At least the action is relatively straightforward. 

Some of the key casting is suspect. Jeremy Irons brings so much gravitas to Henry IV that Tom Hiddleston’s Henry V doesn’t really burst through as the great hero – he reminded me, unkindly, of Ben Whishaw’s sensitive loser Richard. Nor does Hiddleston rise to the occasion during his great patriotic speeches, a deadly weakness.  

As the great heart of the dramas, Simon Russell Beale may be our greatest actor, as is usually claimed, but I was not convinced he can be a Falstaff. Then again, I am not sure who could bring out every aspect of this supremely vital figure. He still dominated the dramas, as he should. 

Carping. After such an exhausting, exhilarating journey, the defects don’t matter. 

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