Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Be a King: The BBC Series The Hollow Crown

The magnificent BBC series The Hollow Crown, which PBS’s Great Performances ran over four weeks, is an epic undertaking: productions of all four of the histories that constitute what scholars call Shakespeare’s Henriad, shepherded by major English directors. The Henriad begins with Richard II, in which King Richard’s cousin Bolingbroke, exiled for half a dozen years, returns with an army when Richard confiscates his lands after Bolingbroke’s father’s death and pillages his estate to fund a war against Ireland. Bolingbroke claims that all he wants is what is rightfully his, his father’s legacy, but his army overruns the kingdom and his cause gathers allies who were formerly Richard’s friends, and Richard knows that the only logical consequence of a successful insurrection against his throne is the loss of the crown to his rival. Bolingbroke becomes King Henry IV, the title character of Shakespeare’s two-part sequel. But Henry IV is about the end of the king’s life and reign, and its protagonist is his heir, Prince Hal. At the end of Part I Hal comes of age on the battlefield; at the end of Part II he leaves behind the wastrel’s life among the London taverns and whorehouses to succeed his father on the throne of England. In the final play of the tetralogy, Henry V, his kingship is tested, once again in battle, as he leads his country against France, emerging in triumph and with the hand of the French princess, Katherine.

Presenting these plays in sequence underscores the ways in which they reflect each other. When the aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) takes his troops into battle, it’s to put down a rebellion engineered by Worcester (David Hayman) and his gang; if they’re successful, Worcester’s nephew Harry Percy, known as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), will win the crown rather than Hal (Tom Hiddleston). After sitting through Richard II we can’t help but be aware of the irony – the king is striving to suppress an uprising that endangers the very crown he himself won as a much younger man (played by Rory Kinnear) by rising up against his king (Ben Whishaw). Richard is not a villain, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, but he’s a bad king, mercurial, impulsive and vain. He exiles Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy) instead of allowing them to play out their mutual enmity – they’ve accused each other of treason – in the chivalric manner, in a joust; he interrupts them just as they’re about to engage and pronounces a sentence against them that comes out of the blue, and though he has no evidence to substantiate either of their claims over the other, he exiles Bolingbroke for six years, Mowbray for life. His selling off his uncle John of Gaunt’s estate after the death of the good old man (Patrick Stewart) is typical of the way he’s parceled off his kingdom to pay for his escapades. He doesn’t seek the counsel of his wise uncles, Gaunt and the Duke of York (David Suchet), and when Gaunt gives it to him unsolicited, on his death bed, Richard grows so irate that he threatens what’s left of Gaunt’s life. In Rupert Goold’s production, Richard actually lays hands on Gaunt and draws his sword. The only friends of whom he asks advice are his young comrades, who lack experience and therefore wisdom, and who, of course, never tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear. (Bolingbroke’s pronouncement against two of them before executing them implies that they have also been Richard’s lovers, but unlike many contemporary productions of Richard II, Goold’s doesn’t address the king’s sexuality.) By contrast, both Bolingbroke and Hal begin their reigns by showing deference to their elders, and their first actions as monarchs – Bolingbroke forgives his callow cousin Aumerle (Tom Hughes), York’s son and a former companion of Richard’s, for his part in a conspiracy to unseat him from his newly acquired throne, but condemns the other conspirators to death; Hal honors the Lord Chief Justice (Geoffrey Palmer) who used to intervene in his youthful follies and publicly divorces himself from Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale), his companion in those follies – indicate insight, balance and discernment. Richard’s reduced sentence for Bolingbroke shows favoritism, not judgment – and since it doesn’t make Bolingbroke’s exile less bitter or more comprehensible, nor does it mitigate the king’s seizure of the lands that properly belong to him, it shows no political savvy either. But when Bolingbroke pardons Aumerle, it’s in response to pleas by his mother, the Duchess of York (Lindsay Duncan), a recognition not only of the strength of blood ties but of the debt he owes his aunt and uncle, and it’s an acknowledgement that Aumerle is still just a boy and still capable of being educated.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II
The themes of the tetralogy include coming of age, rebellion, the tribulations and triumphs of war, familial bonds, grief and loss, the ghosts of the past, time (focusing in Henry IV, Part II on old age and nostalgia for younger times), romance and marriage (Hotspur’s marriage to feisty Kate, played by Michelle Dockery, and later Henry V’s courtship of Katherine, played by Mélanie Thierry), and the power of rhetoric. Henry V contains a motif of messages conveyed from the French monarchy to the English one and vice-versa through messengers – the herald Montjoy (Jérémie Covillault) for the French, the king’s uncle Exeter (Anton Lesser) for the English – the power of whose words is significant in determining the actions of their listeners. But the most potent rhetoric comes from the king himself, in exhortations to his men before the Battle of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt that are among Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. Henry gains entrance to the poorly defended town of Harfleur by convincing the governor that it’s preferable to admit the army peacefully than to suffer at its hands; here the violent picture he paints of the ravages of war (old men dashed against the walls, maidens raped by marauding soldiers) is the underside of the mercy he offers – and delivers – that makes violence unnecessary. On the other hand, Richard is in love with rhetoric for its own sake, so as gorgeous as his language is, it’s entirely self-conscious and thus it lacks power. When he agrees to give up his throne to Bolingbroke, in an utterly amazing scene that’s the centerpiece of Richard II, he poeticizes his situation by creating one metaphor after another, beginning with “Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton” as he descends the stairway to the courtyard of Flint Castle to meet Bolingbroke and his forces. He turns his secession into a grandiloquent performance while Bolingbroke says comparatively little, standing with his army and waiting – as Kinnear conveys the moment, with increasing impatience – during his cousin’s flights of lyrical fancy. Whishaw plays Richard as a gifted actor for whom the theatrical and the real overlap: the fact that he’s giving a performance doesn’t mean that he isn’t feeling real anguish. But when he calls for a mirror so that he can watch his own face as he surrenders his crown, then smashes it and declares, “How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face,” the pragmatic Bolingbroke cuts through his rhetoric by correcting him drily, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed / The shadow of your face.”

Jeremy Irons & Tom Hiddleston (photo by Joss Barratt)

But the great theme of The Hollow Crown is, of course, kingship. The title comes from Richard’s celebrated speech, “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings!,” an idea that is picked up in Henry IV, Part II when Hal soliloquizes to his father’s crown as the king lies close to death. Shakespeare explores the idea of how to be a king in different ways in Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. The staggering achievement of Richard II, which I think is the greatest of the histories – it’s as complex as any of the tragedies, and in fact it is a tragedy – is the way it balances its protagonist and its antagonist, making the antagonist the hero of the narrative, the man who should be king, while maintaining our sympathy for Richard, defeated and eventually murdered. Goold devises a new wrinkle by placing Aumerle among the men who, mistakenly believing they are enacting the new king’s wishes, kill Richard in his cell in the Tower of London. In this version it’s also Aumerle who delivers the corpse in a coffin to Bolingbroke. It’s a weird sort of penance for his betrayal but equally misbegotten; Bolingbroke not only decries it but spends much of his life in acts of devotion to earn God’s forgiveness. And on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, his son, in prayer, is still speaking of the obeisance that is due Richard’s slaughtered corpse. The guilt that Henry IV feels over Richard’s fate is part of Shakespeare’s dramatic strategy for dealing with the political demands of writing a play about Richard II during the reign of Elizabeth I, who was Henry IV’s direct successor. If you lived in an age that believed in the divine right of kings, and you were a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth, how did you write a play in which the first Tudor on the English throne acquires it by armed rebellion against his monarch? If you were a hack, presumably you turned Richard into a villain and Bolingbroke into a saint guided by God to save England. If you were Shakespeare, you wrote Richard II.

Goold is well known for his radical, sometimes exciting takes on Shakespeare (his Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, turned up on PBS a few years back), but doubling Aumerle and Richard’s assassin is his and his co-adapter Ben Power’s only significant alteration to the text. Otherwise he plays it pretty straight; it’s easy to ignore the few fancy, art-house flourishes in the camerawork – the religious imagery that embroiders Richard’s murder in the Tower and the removal of his corpse in the throne-room and so forth. The production is first-rate, with a superb ensemble that includes David Morrissey as Northumberland and Lucian Msamati as the Bishop of Carlisle. The only actor I would replace is Clémence Poésy, who is both fussy and dull as Richard’s unhappy queen. (Most viewers will recognize her as Fleur in the Harry Potter pictures; she played Roxane opposite Douglas Hodge in the last Broadway go-round of Cyrano de Bergerac, and she wasn’t much good there either.) However, it isn’t Poésy’s fault that of her two scenes, one of them doesn’t work at all: the scene in the royal garden where the head gardener (David Bradley) speaks in horticultural metaphors about the deleterious effect of Richard’s reign on the kingdom. It’s a symbolic scene that comes straight out of medieval drama, and when you film the play in realistic settings it feels hopelessly artificial. (I would have left it out.)

Ben Whishaw & Rory Kinnear
Rory Kinnear brings some of the same military energy to Bolingbroke that he used as Iago in Nicholas Hytner’s Othello at the National Theatre. It’s a performance of admirable restraint: though Bolingbroke is a man of action, I was more aware in this production of the amount of stage time he spends watching and listening, especially in his scenes with that master talker Richard. Ben Whishaw, with his strange, willowy intensity, gives an inspired performance in the title role; he’s as great as Derek Jacobi was in the 1978 BBC production, and I never thought I’d see another Richard of that caliber. These are the towering English actors of their generation. Their reading of the scene where the crown is passed from Richard to Bolingbroke – in the text it’s two scenes, but Goold and Power have wisely joined them – makes the wondrous nature of what’s occurring before our eyes and those of the witnesses palpable. You think, None of these men could ever have seen anything like this, the dethroning of a king. No wonder Richard’s fate haunts Bolingbroke for the rest of his life.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff
Henry IV is Shakespeare’s great coming-of-age play. Hal, the crown prince, is generally absent from the palace, preferring Eastcheap, where he leads a dissolute life in the taverns and brothels. He knows he can’t be an irresponsible youth forever – that, to use the terms that the critic Northrop Frye applies to the Bard ’s romantic comedies, eventually he will have to trade in his holiday life for the everyday. But for Hal the everyday is the troubled life of a king, which has aged and debilitated his father, and he’s not anxious to embrace it. The play juxtaposes the king, Hal’s father, who’s almost given up hope that he will conduct himself like the crown prince, with Falstaff, Hal’s surrogate, indulgent father, who lives almost out of time, leading an existence of pure liberty and excess, drinking and gourmandizing. In their first scene together, Hal awakens the sleeping Falstaff, who asks what time it is, and Hal replies, “I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of day.” Hal, by contrast, is ever mindful of the time. In his famous first-act soliloquy, he promises to surprise all his detractors: “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” (Watching these plays back to back, at this point you can’t help recalling Richard’s prison-cell soliloquy, where he bemoans, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”) Over the course of Henry IV Hal does indeed prove himself, defeating Hotspur in single combat on the field of Shrewsbury at the end of Part I and reconciling himself with his father on his deathbed. At the end he takes on not just the mantle but the moral rectitude of a monarch, renouncing Falstaff, who has interrupted the solemn coronation to cry out impulsively to “my king! My Jove! . . . my heart!” This is one of the most heartbreaking scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, and like the passing of the crown from Richard to Bolingbroke in Richard II it handles two opposite points of view with equal weight: we weep for Falstaff but we understand that Hal, now a king, has no choice but to distance himself from his old friend. And Falstaff, suffering Hal’s rejection, can only fade away and die, as he does at the beginning of Henry V, while Hal rises to great heights as a warrior and England’s most beloved son.

Jeremy Irons in Henry IV (photo by Joss Barratt)
The second part of Henry IV isn’t a very good play; it recycles ideas from Part 1 and the continuation of the civil war feels tired and redundant after Hal and Hotspur have already fought to the death. But we need it to complete the coming-of-age narrative; we need it for the reconciliation of father and son and for the young king’s “I know thee not, old man” speech to Falstaff. It’s a bit of a trial to sit through some of it but it pays off in the overall arc of the Henriad. But you can see the wisdom in Orson Welles’s cutting most of it and melding it with Part 2 in his brilliant 1966 Chimes at Midnight (my favorite Shakespeare movie).

Richard Eyre’s production makes a few mistakes early on. Rendering the soliloquies as voice-overs – never a good choice, I think – undercuts the power of Hal’s “I know you all” speech. It’s fun to look at a real father and son, Alun and Joe Armstrong, in the roles of Northumberland and his son Harry Percy, but Joe Armstrong isn’t a good Hotspur. He drains all the humor out of the character, and what’s left is a belligerent, tactless fellow with a lack of self-awareness. It’s true that Shakespeare juxtaposes Hotspur with Hal so we’ll understand why Hal is the one who belongs on the throne of England (just as he uses Laertes and Fortinbras in tandem with Hamlet to demonstrate the difference between a young man of thought and sensitivity with a moral compass and two young men of action who don’t weigh the consequences of their actions). But if we don’t find Hotspur appealing, then he’s merely a straw figure, and King Henry looks foolish for wishing that he and Northumberland could swap sons. And there’s no romantic comedy in Armstrong’s scenes with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Kate.

In the most important ways, though, this is a heartening Henry IV. Jeremy Irons gives what may be the performance of his career as the king. His disappointment in his son emphasizes anger rather than grief, which makes Henry a more active character and matches up well with Kinnear’s portrayal of Henry as a younger man. Because we feel so much strength of character in the king, his physical weakening, especially in Part 2, is devastating. Like Welles, the marvelous Simon Russell Beale underlines the sadness in Falstaff as he sinks into old age – and Welles is the best of all possible models for this role. And Hiddleston undergoes his own coming of age as an actor in the enormous part of Prince Hal, which he carries into Henry V. Based on the few roles I’ve seen him play in movies, I would never have guessed that he had either the technical finesse or the depth of feeling for this character – and I’m delighted to find that I was wrong on both counts.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V
In a sense, the first three-quarters of the Henriad is preparation for Henry V, which is about what makes a great king. The youthful King Henry learned the common touch in his tavern days, and it stands him in good stead when he leads his men into battle, first at Harfleur and then at Agincourt, and especially when, on the eve of Agincourt, he disguises himself in another man’s cloak and slips among the common soldiers to discover how they feel about the project they’re engaged in and the mortal danger their king has placed them in. Henry V is also the most romantic character Shakespeare ever wrote, including Romeo, and in the last act he gets a lovely romantic-comedy scene where he courts the French princess. Mélanie Thierry doesn’t have the technique Renée Asherson brought to the role of Katherine in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version or the wit Emma Thompson furnished in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 remake, but she has a blossoming beauty and an innocent eagerness that make it absolutely clear why a young warrior would fall in love with her at first sight. (A bonus treat: the peerless Geraldine Chaplin shows up as her lady-in-waiting, Alice, for the irresistible English lesson scene.)

Thea Sharrock, who directed Henry V, had a hell of a challenge, since the Olivier and Branagh versions are among the most accomplished Shakespeare films ever made. She isn’t a great filmmaker, but The Hollow Crown isn’t a movie, and she acquits herself very well. Henry V is, in my view, the best war play ever written (Euripides’ The Trojan Women would be my second choice): it gets at both the glory and the bitterness. Like Goold, Sharrock collaborated with Ben Power, who is credited with the adaptation (Eyre did his own for the two parts of Henry IV). Their contribution is to focus as much on the tavern revelers, Falstaff’s crew, who join the fray but aren’t in the king’s sights, as on the grand old campaigners like Owen Teale’s Fluellen who are and Henry’s loyal advisers like Exeter (Anton Lesser), York (Paterson Joseph) and Westmoreland (James Laurenson). The same wonderful character actors we saw in Henry IV reappear in Henry V, so when Mistress Quickly (the endearing Julie Walters) bids farewell to Nym (Tom Brooke), Bardolph (Tom Georgeson) and Pistol (Paul Ritter), who has married her since Henry IV, Part 2, their plaintive departure catches you in the throat. And we see what becomes of all three. Nym fights ferociously, but Pistol falls apart psychologically at Agincourt, and Bardolph is caught for stealing treasures from a church in Harfleur and executed. (Sharrock borrows a trick from Branagh: when the king comes across the hanged body of his old friend he flashes back to their days together in Eastcheap.) It seems to me that just about everything Sharrock does with the actors here enriches the play – with John Hurt as the Chorus, Jérémie Covillault as Montjoy, Lambert Wilson as a grave King Charles, and Edward Akrout as his arrogant son the Dauphin, whose ill-judged mockery of the young English king provokes Henry’s ire. And Sharrock and Power add a frame, beginning and ending with the king’s funeral. (He died at the age of thirty-five, of dysentery.) At first I wasn’t sure about this touch, but Shakespeare does put the triumphant tale of Henry’s kingship in relief in the Chorus’s final speech (where he refers to the infant king Henry VI and alludes to England’s eventual loss of France), so the play ends, if not tragically, at least soberly. And by the end of Henry V I thought I understood what Sharrock and Power were up to. The image of Henry’s French queen mourning over the bier of a still youthful, still handsome king completes the task of enshrining Shakespeare’s heroic king into legend.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment