I’m still struggling a bit with what this blog actually is, in its tenth year, but this week I’ve decided it’s a cutting-edge review of all that’s new and hot in entertainment. So I’m bringing you a review of a three-year-old production of a 420-year-old play. Because I’m on top of things.
Lately I’ve started watching The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays. Apart from Richard III, the histories are often underappreciated and performed less often than the Bard’s tragedies and comedies. Sometimes, this obscurity is deserved. It may be unpopular to say this, but while a lot of Shakespeare’s plays earned him his reputation as the greatest English writer, others were … not so great. Every writer has hits and misses, and I’d venture to say that the history plays contain a large share of Shakespeare’s misses.
That said, The Hollow Crown (as much as I’ve seen of it so far) does great work with uneven subject material. Fabulous British actors, lavish sets and costumes, movie-quality production values — these adaptations are a joy to watch. So far I’ve seen Henry IV, Parts I & II. Those two plays really encapsulate the best and the worst of Shakespeare, and as a bonus, you get to watch and listen to Tom Hiddleston for four hours.
I love, love, love the play Henry IV, Part I. I studied it for my senior honours project in college, so I spent the better part of a year reading and analyzing that play and its sources, and then I taught it in high school for four years. The next school I taught at didn’t have that play on the curriculum so it got put on the back shelf of my mind, and I haven’t read or watched it for well over two decades.
It’s such a rich and wonderful story (based considerably more on legend than on history): the aging King Henry IV, struggling to hold onto the throne he usurped from Richard II, is in despair as his son, Prince Hal, wastes his time with disreputable companions in London taverns and brothels. It features Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, as Hal’s elderly partner-in-crime, and Harry “Hotspur” Percy, as an antagonist who is not merely the bad guy but also has genuine wit, depth and complexity. Prince Hal finally steps up and does the princely thing by defeating Hotspur in hand-to-hand combat, possibly saving his father’s thone in the process. The transformation of Prince Hal from wastrel to heroic prince, complete with the complicated web of motivations that drives him, makes this place endlessly watchable and anayzable (which is how I ended up spending my whole senior year in college on it).
Tom Hiddleston does a brilliant job with this play, selling the viewer completely on the fun-loving party boy, the dutiful prince, and the conflicted young man who says he is just biding his time till he reveals his true, kinglike identity — but is he just deceiving himself? Or us? Jeremy Irons is similarly brilliant as King Henry IV, and Joe Armstrong, the actor playing Hotspur, who I haven’t seen before, does a great job with this complex character. I’ve seen lots of criticism online from people who didn’t like Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff (again, I’m not familiar with the actor’s other work) but I didn’t have a problem with it — he nails the crucial scene, where Falstaff and Prince Hal take turns role-playing Hal and the King, and Hal’s unexpectedly serious reply foreshadows his eventually rejection of Falstaff and all the old man represents. To sum up: it’s a rich, wonderful play with great characters, and this is a beautiful adaptation of it.
Then I watched Henry IV, Part Two, which is just a complete train wreck. And it’s not the fault of the Hollow Crown director, producers or actors — this one is all on Shakespeare.
In Part Two, Hiddleston is as gorgeously watchable as ever. And Irons’ deterioration as the prematurely-aging king is even better. The other actors do the best they can with the material, and the production looks as beautiful as the first.
But it’s crap. It’s just crap. Henry IV, Part Two, has exactly one great scene — when Prince Hal comes to sit by the bedside of his dying father and borrows his crown to try it on for size — and then the dying King rises from his deathbed to accuse his son of hastening him into an early grave. Brilliant stuff.
But to get to that, we have to endure two hours of more tavern hijinks that don’t develop any of the characters, some bromance between Hal and his buddy Ned Poins, a character who you think might be going in interesting directions but who was so inconsequential to Shakespeare that he wrote him out of Henry V without even a passing reference, and endless scenes of Falstaff recruiting soldiers in the company of two decidedly unhilarious minor characters called Silence and Shallow.
There’s no Hotspur here, no towering antagonist against whom Hal can measure himself; there’s also no consistency to the character development, since as the play opens Hal seems to have again lost his father’s respect, so hard-won at the battle of Shrewsbury, and be right back to Square One. The whole thing is a mess, a mess which exists presumably because 1) Shakespeare was planning a cycle of history plays that would cover English history from Richard II to Richard III, dammit, and he needed to get every important moment in there, and 2) audiences loved Falstaff, so like a sitcom writer playing up the favourite character’s catchphrase over and over, he gave the audience what they wanted.
The problem with Prince Hal, later King Henry V, as a character, is that he has (in legend if not in historical fact) this fabulous backstory as the devil-may-care king’s son who breaks his father’s heart by hobnobbing with low-life commoners, then pulls it all together to become one of England’s most beloved hero-warrior kings. (Of course his “heroism” was based entirely on invading someone else’s country, winning a short-lived victory, and then dying of dysentry while he was still young enough for his reputation to be intact … but that’s history. I’m talking about literature). There’s enough material there for one really great play, or maybe two pretty good ones.
But Shakespeare made the same mistake that Peter Jackson would later make in adapting The Hobbit— assuming that because your audience loves the story, they’ll keep paying to come back over and over, and thus it’s OK to stretch a single good story into an overblown three-part spectacle where a lot happens in Part I, a little in Part II and almost nothing in Part III. Well, the battle of Agincourt happens in Henry V, but like part III of The Hobbit, that’s one big, overblown battle scene made to carry the weight of an entire drama, and I’m not sure even Tom Hiddleston can be enough to make me forgive that.
Now you may ask — are you, Trudy, a middling sort of novelist, high-school English teacher, and person with an MA in English, actually giving editing notes to Shakespeare? Suggesting what THE BARD should have done differently?? Not only am I not one of the great writers of the English language, I’m not even a Shakespeare scholar, just someone who has enjoyed some of his plays a lot over the years. Are there hidden depths and layers of richness to Henry IV, Part II that I’m missing? Maybe … but the fact that the play is virtually never adapted for stage these days (unless a director is really committed, as with The Hollow Crown, to producing the whole cycle) suggests that a lot of Bard-lovers agree with me. And the lesson here seems clear to me: even a great writer, even our greatest writer, can produce some bad work. Maybe you’re most likely to produce bad work when you’re writing for reasons that are motivated by something other than the story — like the desire to please an audience who loved your last play and wants more of the same, or the need to fill in the middle section of your trilogy, or a sense that plays about heroic dead kings (or sparkly undead vampires, or whatever) are super-hot right now, and will definitely sell.
All that said, yeah, I’m still going to watch The Hollow Crown adaptation of Henry V. Because Hiddleston.