In the wake of Henry V, I ventured back to the two instalments of The Hollow Crown which I should have watched before: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. These were entirely new to me: I had never seen them before, either on the stage or on screen, and never read them either. I’ve always felt a little daunted by the history plays in general, and I steered particularly clear of anything with multiple parts (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 remain to be tackled on a future occasion). As the two plays form two halves of the same story and have the same cast, I wanted to deal with them together – and yet to consider each separately.
HENRY IV: PART 1
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
(Hal, Act I, Scene 2)
King Henry IV is disappointed in his eldest son. Fifteen years into his reign, the effects of his usurpation rumble on, as the nobles who helped him to power resent the firm hand of his rule. The country’s security rests on a knife edge: the Scots are causing unrest in the north, while Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, makes common cause with the troublesome Welsh, led by Owen Glendower. The one person who is fighting to preserve the realm, as far as Henry can see, is Harry Percy – nicknamed Hotspur. This fiery young man is the same age as Henry’s wayward Hal, but while the one wins great victories and takes prisoners, the other spends his days distracted by bad company in the stews of Cheapside.
But soon even Henry’s fantasy son disappoints him: Hotspur refuses to give up his lucrative prisoners to the king for ransom and, on being commanded, storms off to throw in his lot with his brother-in-law Mortimer. Rumours of the discontent even reach young Hal, in his usual place at the Boar’s Head Tavern, surrounded by his merry, irresponsible friends – Falstaff, Bardolph, Poins, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. As the country comes to arms, Hal realises that the time has come for him to shrug off his idleness and take his place at the right hand of the king – showing his father that Hotspur is not the only worthy Harry in the kingdom.
The budget is still pretty limited – whenever there’s a battle, as I noted with Agincourt, there’s only ever about fifty people on the field – but the production values are impressive. There may not be much, but what there is looks good, solid and convincing. The Boar’s Head Tavern is a great set and always populated with lots of roistering low-lives; the battles are satisfyingly violent and gritty; and Tom Hiddleston’s Hal, on the field at Shrewsbury, is virtually unrecognisable under layers of mud, blood and chainmail. Furthermore, I’m consistently amazed at the cast they’ve managed to assemble. There are plenty of familiar faces: this is the BBC at its best, marshalling the premier league of character actors. Top of the billing is Jeremy Irons, whom I always find gripping, and who is here gruff and bearlike as Henry IV.
Simon Russell Beale plays Falstaff, a character who actually surprised me by being far more calculating and subtly unpleasant than I’d expected: knowing Falstaff only by hearsay, I thought he was just a cheerful fat drunkard, and I was (pleasantly) surprised to find him much more complicated than that. He’s a clown in many ways – pompous and self-important – but he’s also a deeply pernicious influence on young Hal: out for all he can get, for the smallest possible amount of effort. As for Hotspur: I don’t know how he’s usually played, but I thought that Joe Armstrong was a bit too blunt and sullen to command the kind of respect that he has from his followers. He was good at striding around shouting, but I didn’t see a great leader in him. (Amusingly, his on-screen father Northumberland was played by his real-life father, Alun Armstrong.)
All other parts were well-played; although, being of a flighty turn of mind, I was easily distracted by the appearance of actors whom I know better from other things. For example, Owen Glendower disconcertingly turned out to be Robert Pugh: Craster from Game of Thrones, while his ally Mortimer was played by Harry Lloyd, another graduate of the School of Unpleasant Westerosi Deaths (as Viserys Targaryen); Lady Percy, Hotspur’s wife, was Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame (I couldn’t help thinking she’d make a fine Lady Macbeth one day).
I’m aware that, as a lover of so many Shakespeare plays, it makes me look ignorant to admit that this is the first time I’ve seen Henry IV; but all I can say is that it was definitely worth the wait, and so much more fun than I’d expected. And I’d never realised that Hal plays such a large part in these plays. I’d always thought that his escapades with Falstaff were a comic sideshow, prior to him coming into his full glory in Henry V, but in fact Henry IV is as much Hal’s story as it is Henry’s. This is the story of youthful folly, repentance and rehabilitation: the boy is nowhere near as much of a fool as everyone thinks he is, and he’s just waiting for his moment to show his quality.
I actually liked Tom Hiddleston even more as Hal than as Henry V – and I liked him well enough there, though I sometimes felt he was concentrating so hard on the verse as to make his performance strikingly understated and calm. But here he was largely freed from iambic pentameter and given the chance to revel in prose. He also got to show off more of his abilities as a physical and emotional actor, and this is the area where he really shone for me. He suggested Hal’s underlying psychology and the depth of his intelligence, while on the surface he cavorted with his friends: one minute a drunken madcap; the next giving an impressively accurate impression of Jeremy Irons’s king. That scene, in which he and Falstaff role-play Hal’s eventual return to court to see his father, was wonderful. As Hal played the king, you could gradually see his levity seep away as, through imagining his father’s words, he grew to understand the good sense of them, and to question his attachment to Falstaff – even as Falstaff stands before him.
And so, Hal goes to the wars with his father and, in the final act, comes face to face with Hotspur, as dramatic license demands. The two Harrys meet in single combat and Hal fights not only for his life but for his good name, against the man whom his father once publicly desired to have as son instead. Each blow Hal strikes is not only for himself, but for his crown and kingdom:
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign.
(Hal, Act V, Scene 2)
HENRY IV: PART 2
O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? …
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge…
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
King Henry IV is dying. As he grows frail from apoplexy, he frets over the future of the realm. For all that Hal has proved his mettle at the Battle of Shrewsbury, he still goes off cavorting in London with unsuitable friends like Poins. For Henry, there is an unwelcome juxtaposition between Hal and his more dutiful, sober younger brothers; but, having come by the crown by irregular means himself, he must ensure that it passes in smooth succession to his eldest son, and so he must hope for the best.
To make matters worse, the realm is far from peaceful in the aftermath of Hotspur’s death. His father Northumberland itches for vengeance, and the northern lords grieve the loss of their charismatic young leader. Even the Archbishop of York has lent his support to Northumberland, and incipient rebellion simmers in the air. While Henry worries and weakens, Hal himself is facing his own difficult decisions. He is becoming aware that his youthful follies mean that the nobles and advisers of the realm think him weak, misguided and easily swayed. Moreover, he soon discovers that his former ‘friends’, such as Falstaff, think the same of him, stringing him along in the hope of future gain and power. Hal weighs fleeting pleasure and false friendship against the call of duty; and, when the crown finally comes to him, he puts off his youthful frivolities and decides to become the kind of king that will make England proud of him.
Once again, I watched this blind, without knowing the text or the story; and I actually enjoyed this less than the first part. This may have been partly due to the cutting or editing: I thought the narrative was weaker and the scenes jumped around all over the place. There were also more self-consciously comic scenes of the kind that always set my teeth slightly on edge (I think of them as ‘Dogberry’ scenes). For example, the scene of Falstaff reviewing Sir Robert Shallow’s recruits for the militia; or the scene where Pistol blunders into the Boar’s Head tavern and causes a brawl… Both of these, in the edited adaptation, felt extraneous. Generally speaking, the different threads of story came together more successfully in the second half of this part, as Hal faces up to his destiny and decides to put aside his former friends. I have to say that I thought he was slightly cruel in this – his displeasure falling on people like Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, whose only faults were in running the places he liked to go – but I can’t say that I felt sorry for Falstaff, even though Simon Russell Beale played the final scenes marvellously, conveying Sir John’s dazed disbelief and the puncturing of all his hopes.
The cast was much the same as in the first part, although here there were more unexpected faces popping up: Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice; but, most distractingly, Ian Glen as Warwick, who looked and sounded exactly the same as he does as Jorah Mormont. Jeremy Irons continued to be very fine; and although Tom Hiddleston didn’t get quite as much range here – with fewer rambunctious scenes and greater gravity – he was still impressive. There are still moments where he audibly speaks in verse, when actors like Irons or (the nonpareil) Kenneth Branagh can make iambic pentameter as unobtrusive as everyday speech, but any slight stiffness in the recitation was balanced out by the sheer quality of his emotional acting.
The scene I found most touching was the moment after he thinks his father has died, when he takes the hated crown and, placing it on his head, curls up in the throne – the camera is right up in his face, and you can just watch his poise slowly crumple and his eyes filling with tears as the enormity of the situation dawns on him. And yet, moments later, it turns out that he’s been mistaken – his father wasn’t dead, merely deeply asleep, and when Henry storms in and finds Hal enthroned and crowned, the sheer shock and awkwardness of it is almost painful. I hope Hiddleston gets to do more like this in the future – he’s very easy on the eye, but he also seems to have a kind of emotional intelligence that not many actors of my generation do. Plus, he doesn’t have conventional square-jawed good looks: his face is more striking and should mean that he gets to do more interesting character work rather than just being pigeonholed as a romantic lead. Let’s hope.
Oh, and by the by: this adaptation moves Act II, Scene 2 from ‘London. Another street’ to a bathhouse, so those of an excitable disposition should be warned that you do get to see slightly more of Hal and Poins than Shakespeare intended (indeed, judging by the Google Image results for the programme, this scene struck a lot of people).
But let’s try to end on a slightly more elevated note. We leave Hal as a newly-crowned king: the young Henry V, whose deeds we will shortly see much more of (or we would, if we were watching this in the right order; being of a contrary nature, I’m not). Turning to his grieving brothers, he promises that, through him, England will finally find some peace:
This new and gorgeous garment, majesty
Sits not so easy on me as you think.
Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear:
This is the English, not the Turkish court…
I’ll be your father and your brother too;
Let me but bear your love, I’ll bear your cares:
Yet weep that Harry’s dead, and so will I;
But Harry lives that shall convert those tears
By number into hours of happiness.
(Act V, Scene 2)
I’m so pleased I’ve finally got round to watching all the episodes in this series (I’ll have to post on Richard II at some future date when I watch it for a second time). The BBC have done a great job in my opinion, creating a manageable and logical sequence of plays which show us the history plays as they should be watched – segments of a continuous story. Of course, the same thing was done by the Royal Shakespeare Company a couple of years ago, but I found it somehow less daunting to settle down with a DVD and make my first acquaintance with these plays in my own time and at my own pace.
In due course, I’d like to watch the DVDs of the Globe’s Henry IV from a couple of years ago, with Jamie Parker as Hal (having seen his Henry V last year), and see how the performances compare. In particular I’d like to see Roger Allam’s Falstaff. But I feel that The Hollow Crown has been a fantastic way of breaking myself in, with strong performances, beautiful cinematography (despite the modest budget) and generally excellent editing and direction, which make the complex plays easy to understand for those of us who haven’t studied them or seen them before. If only the BBC would go on to do more of this! – perhaps a new Shakespeare project to replace the cycle of filmed plays from thirty / forty years ago? Now that would be a marvellous thing!
P.S. Following up my Dunnett-related comments on Henry V, I have to say that I think Hiddleston has my vote, in the event of a Lymond series being made. He has the grace, sensitivity, intelligence and wry humour to carry it off; he is superb at conveying emotion without words; and he has the most startling blue eyes. Ah well. I don’t suppose anyone has any contacts at HBO and can give them a nudge to hurry them along?