The Hollow Crown series has been marvellous in direction, acting and settings.
Jeremy Irons, who played Henry IV, also presented a thoughtful documentary about the three Henry plays in the series. This includes footage of different productions especially those at The Globe and you get an idea of how those plays worked up their audience with contrasting scenes – a comic bit, followed by a love scene, followed by a fight.
I am glad that the plays have been set in medieval times, when these dynastic discords occurred, and that the actors are wearing chain mail or robes. The battle scenes, in snow or through bare woods, are excellent, as the warriors get into single combat and go to it clanking sword againstsword. Single combat always makes a good spectacle. Why else employ light sabres in Star Wars?
That is a problem with modern settings of Shakespeare. How do you make the fights work, especially when the dialogue constantly mentions swords?. Baz Luhrmann‘s production of Romeo and Juliet tried to get round this by making the camera zoom in on the brand names Sword and Dagger printed on the guns that the Mafia style gangs fought with, but it was a clumsy fix. Two recent modern productions, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus managed to sneak in a little hand to hand engagement from the blood-thirsty combatants, however unlikely that would be in the age of ballistics.
Macbeth and Coriolanus were both updated to be political thrillers, and they worked well. But it can be annoying to have modern parallels pushed at you. I once saw a production of Coriolanus with the main man goose-stepping, which infuriated me because (a) Coriolanus isn’t a Fascist, just a general bad at democratic politics; (b) even if he were, I don’t want the director holding up Think Mussolini! signs like that It’s slightly insulting, like being harangued about politics by Rory Bremner.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find parallels in your own times. Young Prince Hal goes slumming among the low-life and I thought of a rich boy, the son of a CEO or banker, hanging out with rappers, Falstaff being the veteran MC and the Godfather of the Dive Club.
The talking heads in the Jeremy Irons documentary agree that, as King Henry IV wishes Hotspur was his son, so Prince Hal is seeking a father figure in Falstaff. That is neatly symmetrical, but while there are lines where King Henry says that of Hotspur, there is not one to suggest Hal regards the reprobate Falstaff as anything but a playmate. Hal is eloquent, quick witted, – one of Shakespeare’s smart-arses, like Hamlet, a great world-wielder -and his and Falstaff’s exchanges are duelling performances as each out-nouns and out-adjectives each other.
Hal: I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,—
Falstaff: ‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,—
Tom Hiddleston as Hal suggests lithe and young energy and is an eyeful lounging with the bad ass Poins (David Dawson) in the bathhouse scene.* He gets all of Hal’s moods – his enjoyment of his own talents and pranks, the splinter of ice that observes coolly his low-life chums while acting as one of them, the growing awareness that one day he will have to do the equivalent of graduating from Harvard and taking his seat on the board. His knowledge that his wild ways are a gap year before returning to his real life make him unlovably cool and self-contained. Prince Hal has to grow out of Falstaff, put on the armour and start fighting as a modern privileged roaring boy starts wearing the suit, tapping the blackberry and spending his days in a glass tower to maintain his position in the world.
Simon Russell Beale was a sound fat Falstaff. with his mixture of intelligent cynicism, warmth and the pathos of one feeling age approaching. Age presses more and more on him while his corruption becomes less amusing as he accepts bribes from the press-ganged working men and exploits the daffy Mistress Quickly’s affection for him (Julie Walters, good, but isn’t Mistress Quickly a marriageable forty or so, not sixty?).
Prince Hal and Falstaff are both complex characters that could come from novels, in that we are given much of their thinking as well as their words. Around them are simpler and vivid characters – the king, Hotspur, Glendower, Pistol, Justice Shallow.
Jeremy Irons as the king, sick and furrowed with anxiety and guilt is superb. Joe Armstrong, playing Hotspur as a touchy, scrappy whippet of a Geordie lights up every scene he is in, whether rousing his troops, undercutting the operatic Owen Glendower’s grandiosity or teasing his wife. The scene when Glendower’s daughter sings in Welsh by the fire in the Great Hall while Hotspur and his wife (Michelle Dockery) are together for the last time is very poignant.
This scene’s poignancy is echoed later by Falstaff’s last hours with Doll Tearsheet ( Maxine Peake). I liked her fierceness and also her tenderness, but in late medieval England surely even a cut-price whore would wear some finery, not just a torn hempen sack.
When Hal and his father go off to do serious business together, i e. put down a rebellion, Hal speaks his father’s language. The rapping has stopped:-
Henry IV: How bloodily the sun begins to peer
Above yon busky hill! the day looks pale
At his distemperature.
Hal: The southern wind
Doth play the trumpet to his purposes,
And by his hollow whistling in the leaves
Foretells a tempest and a blustering day.
I have not seen the Henry IV plays before. They are as rich and complex as the great tragedies. The old feel themselves failing and dwindling and fear the burning young waiting to take their place in the world. Is there any scene in literature about ageing that is as sad as those between Falstaff and Justice Shallow (a lovely thin reed, David Bamber) talking of their youth? The powerful use the less powerful and then discard them. Power colours every relationship – father, son, spouse, friends, comrades.
*Totally gratuitous, as the stage directions just say “A street” but they are fine male specimens.