Probably the hardest theatre to bring to the screen are the works of William Shakespeare. Due to the material’s intrinsic theatrically it’s almost impossible to escape the fact they were designed to be seen on stage. However this has not prevented some from attempting to adapt his works to the screen with varying degrees of success. So I was intrigued to learn about a new British mini series called The Hollow Crown being broadcast on the PBS program Great Performances. Comprised of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V ,the series sets an example for film makers on adapting Shakespeare for the screen.
Being telecast on four successive Friday nights, September 20, 27, October 4 and 11 2013 at 9:00 pm EST (check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your area) each of the four manages the nearly impossible task of bringing the plays to life as films while still remaining true to the spirit of their original theatricality. Of the four, Henry V, is probably the most well known while both Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 are considered two of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays. In fact, the former is so rarely performed even on stage I’ve only ever heard of it being produced once during my lifetime.
Of course the key to success in any performance of Shakespeare is the cast, and the directors of this series seemed to have suffered from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the actors at their disposal. When even the supporting and minor roles are played by actors recognizable to most of the viewing audience, people who under other circumstances find themselves in lead roles, you know the cast is talented.
The standard for all others to try and match is set right from the start by Ben Whishaw as Richard II. His performance as the doomed king is incredible to watch. What does with his voice, the emotional range, the changes in pitch conveying anything from anger to fear within the same phrase, and his control has to be heard and seen to be believed.
As the man who deposes him Rory Kinnear as Bolingbrook, Duke of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, does his best to match Whishaw, but in reality doesn’t have as much to work with. His character is ruled by circumstances and he finds himself caught up in the sweep of events. He does a fine job of depicting a man who all of a sudden finds himself out of his depth and struggling to find his feet. You really have the feeling it was never his intent to usurp Richard, but things just spiral out of his control until it’s too late.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare gives hints about what will happen during Henry IV’s reign. Various characters say things like the land will be steeped in blood or those who helped you to the throne won’t be satisfied with what they receive in return. While you might think these are simply the reactions of soar losers trying to unnerve the new king, you’d be wise to heed their words.
Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 are in equal parts about the latter years of Henry IV’s reign and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddlestion). In Part 1 young Hal is a wastrel and the bane of his father’s existence. He spends the majority of his time avoiding any and all responsibility and in the company of the thief, braggart and drunk Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). The king (Jeremy Irons) is so disappointed in his son, when he hears of the exploits of the son of the Duke of Northumberland – also named Hal but usually referred to as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) he actually asks God why he gave him the wrong Hal as son.
However, we discover the reasons for Prince Hal’s desolate lifestyle, he’s running from the crown. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he can see what wearing the crown has done to his father. How the cares and woes of kingship have sickened him and sucked all the joy from his life. Before this happens to Hal he’s determined to have some fun, even if its with, and at the expense of, the likes of Falstaff and his nest of crooks and drunkards. Yet when Northumberland and his son Hotspur rise up in revolt, the Prince is quick to return to his father’s fold in order to put down the rebellion.
For those who only know Hiddlestion from playing the part of Loki in the movies Thor and The Avengers, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only does he rise to the mark set by Wishaw in terms of his performance, he comes close to surpassing it.
He is a central character in both parts of Henry IV and almost singlehandedly has to carry Henry V on his shoulders. He does a magnificent job of portraying the young man desperately looking to cram a lifetime’s worth of living into the few years he has before he must assume the burden of the crown, and the ensuing transition from irresponsible wastrel to dedicated King.
In recent years Jeremy Irons has indulged himself with characters like the one he plays in The Borgias, coasting by on his voice and mannerisms, but as Henry IV he reminds you why he is one of the best actors of his generation. You can almost see the weight of his personal history sitting heavier and heavier upon his shoulders – “heavy is the head that bears the crown”. Irons does a great job of showing this while still managing to give us hints as to his character’s former greatness. The final scenes of Henry IV Part 2 between Irons and Hiddlestion, where the two characters finally come to terms with each other as the prince tells his father of his hatred for the crown having seen what wearing it has done to the king, are simply spellbinding. I could sit and watch those scenes over and over again they are so beautifully acted.
In comparison to the three previous plays Henry V is relatively straightforward, and someways simplistic. In those days England still ruled parts of France. The French, knowing his reputation as the Prince, see Hal’s ascension to the throne as the ideal time to try and win back their lands. Rising to the challenge Henry raises an army and departs for France and although severely outnumbered manages to defeat them at Agincourt.
Hiddlestion’s performance again is exemplary as he lets us see the nervousness he feels at the enormity of the gamble he’s taking in heading off to war as a newly crowned king that lies beneath his determination to defeat France. England’s claim to the disputed territories in France was tenuous at best, and there was no reason save pride for seeking to hold onto them. However, with his country only recently recovered from the divisive rebellions which marked his father’s reign Henry V must have felt he needed to prove he was a strong king in order to quell the potential of further unrest.
Throughout the four parts of The Hollow Crown the directors and cinematographers have taken full advantage of their medium to bring the plays to life. They use the camera’s ability to capture both wide vistas and intimate close ups to help tell the story and create atmospheres appropriate to a scene. When Richard II returns from his wars in Ireland to be informed the entire country has risen in revolt against him, he is greeted on a desolate stretch of beach by a few aides. Seeing the king against the wide open vista with hardly anyone around him stresses how alone he is in the world. Conversely, in Henry V, when Henry gives his “Once more into the breech good friends” speech, normally staged as some great rallying cry to the troops, he is seen huddled with a few soldiers under the walls of the French castle they are besieging. You can actually feel him willing his men to overcome their fears and find what’s necessary to throw themselves back into battle.
Adapting any play to the screen is always a difficult task, and the works of Shakespeare are especially difficult. Too often people either fail to take advantage of the potential the camera has for telling the tale or neglect to find a cast who can properly handle the demands of the text. In the mini series The Hollow Crown not only have they achieved the required balance between performance and media for one play, they have done so over the course of four plays. With top notch performances from every cast member, whether they have two lines or hundreds, and wonderful production values, I have no hesitation in saying these are the best filmed versions of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.
(The Hollow Crown will be shown on your local PBS station on consecutive Fridays starting with Richard II on September 20 2013, Henry IV Part 1 September 27 2013, Henry IV Part 2 October 4 2013 and Henry V October 11 2013 starting at 9:00 pm EST – check your local listings for times and dates in your area)