Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Age of Kings (BBC-TV, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I broke open the DVD boxed set of An Age of Kings, the remarkable 1960 British TV cycle in which the BBC, under producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes, took eight of Shakespeare’s history plays — Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III — and edited them into a 15-part mini-series telling the story of Britain’s royal family and the civil wars between various relatives for the crown between 1399, when Richard II was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke; and 1485, when the last of the Plantagenets, Richard III, was defeated at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII.

The show ran the plays in historical chronological order rather than in the order Shakespeare wrote them — he actually wrote the last four before the first four (and it shows in the greater maturity of the language and dramatic complexity in the first four than the last ones), and it’s not altogether clear just how much of the three Henry VI plays — the earliest ones in the accepted Shakespeare canon — is actually Shakespeare’s writing. Earlier versions of these plays exist, and it seems likely that Shakespeare’s company just picked up the scripts (remember that in the 1500’s there were no copyright laws; everything was in the public domain, and one reason so few plays were published during this era and why so few play scripts exist was that theatre companies wanted to keep their scripts as secure as possible so rivals couldn’t rip off a hit play and perform it themselves) and he patched them together and pumped them up with his own writing. When I read Henry VI, Part 1 in a separate edition it was clear to me that the only scene that was definitely Shakespeare’s was a scene in a garden in which the rivals pick red and white roses, symbolizing the rival Houses of Lancaster and York that would fight the Wars of the Roses in the second half of the cycle — and since earlier versions of this play don’t contain the scene, it seemed obvious that Shakespeare had written it in to tie the first Henry VI play with the two sequels, which were closer to his mature style.

An Age of Kings was personally important to me because National Educational Television (NET), the precursor to PBS, picked up the American rights and I watched the shows on KQED in Marin County when I was growing up — at first tuning in only to the introductions by Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who set the context for each episode and untangled the often snarled genealogy of the British royals at the time so you could tell who was who, how they were related and how much of a claim each would-be king really had to the throne. KQED ran the series every year from 1961 to about 1964 or 1965, at first showing the episodes once weekly, and then, for the last year they had the rights they “stripped” them and showed them daily for 15 days in a row — and they were my introduction to Shakespeare. Indeed, they were so powerful an introduction not only to Shakespeare but to stage-based drama altogether that for a long time I thought all plays were written in blank verse and dealt with the kinds of mythological, historical or otherwise “elevated” subjects as Shakespeare’s did.

The other thing An Age of Kings is famous for is the cast, particularly two actors who went on to bigger and better things: Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in the first four episodes two years before he filmed Dr. No and launched the James Bond series; and Judi Dench, who as a young actress played Catherine, the French princess Henry V marries to solidify his claim to the French throne, and who would become world-famous in her old age for playing hereditary female monarchs: Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and Victoria in Mrs. Brown. (She too would eventually make it into the James Bond series, as the first female “M” in the most recent Bond films.) So when I heard that An Age of Kings was coming out on DVD I rushed to order it (in fact, I got two copies, one for myself and one for my mother because I realized she’d have many of the same memories of it I had and therefore be as eager to see it again as I was), and last night I screened the first three episodes: “This Hollow Crown” and “The Deposing of a King,” based on Richard II; and “Rebellion from the North,” based on the first half of Henry IV, Part 1.

Seen today, what most impresses about An Age of Kings is the sheer speed with which it moves — Michael Hayes keeps the pace moving forward and creates the impression of a history that is moving at such blazing speed even the participants seem overwhelmed by it — and the uniformly excellent quality of the acting, especially its naturalism. An article I read years ago — written by someone whose name I have, alas, long since forgotten — argued that the only way Shakespeare can work for a modern audience is if the actors manage to convince us that they talk this way all the time. In An Age of Kings they meet that challenge handsomely and convince us that they are real people, speaking the language of a bygone age but facing personal, psychological and political issues very familiar to us today.

All too many Shakespeare productions approach the language far too reverently — treating it like a dose of intellectual medicine (“listen to this, it’s good for you”) and chanting the lines in an annoying sing-song pattern, as if they’re too frightened of the iambic pentameter even to try to utter it like normal speech. Not here. From the first three episodes one gets the impression that Shakespeare was aware of mental illnesses we’ve known and categorized today, and depicted them accurately in his characters, even though medical science in his time was almost clueless about the diseases of the body and totally clueless about the diseases of the brain. I first had that thought watching the surviving 1953 kinescope of Orson Welles in a Peter Brook-directed TV production of King Lear, and it occurred to me that what Welles was portraying was an almost clinically exact picture of Alzheimer’s disease — and that Shakespeare may have observed similarly out-of-it old people and written their condition into the role of Lear. I had a similar feeling watching the two Age of Kings episodes based on Richard II and seeing Richard’s mercurial moods — alternating in rapid succession in the opening scene between letting the duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray go forward, then stopping the duel and sending them into exile — Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 10 years, then cutting Bolingbroke’s exile from 10 years to six — and later between resisting Bolingbroke’s challenge to his authority and yielding to it — and suddenly reading Richard’s abrupt changes in mood as what would now be called bipolar disorder.

I also found myself “getting” parts of the play I hadn’t before and finding new meanings as a middle-aged adult that had eluded me when I saw these shows as a child — like the almost screaming-queen quality with which David William played Richard II (one does get the impression that the commoners Bushy, Bagot and Green, whom he’s elevated with knighthoods and made part of his entourage, are also his Gay boyfriends — and given that he was the great-grandson of Britain’s Gay monarch Edward II, vividly and openly characterized as Queer in Christopher Marlowe’s play about him, that would make a certain degree of sense) or the serious drinking Prince Hal (Robert Hardy) does in Henry IV, Part 1. Indeed, one could draw a parallel between Hal, later King Henry V, and George W. Bush: both members of hereditary ruling families who grew up as wastrels and alcoholics, pulled themselves together, eventually succeeded their fathers as heads of state and launched foreign wars that began with quick victories but eventually turned into extended occupations and quagmires.

One thing that comes off strongly from the first three episodes of An Age of Kings was how conservative Shakespeare really was. He was far, far ahead of his time in understanding human psychology and creating multidimensional characters that evoke the unchanging parts of human nature, but he was very much of his time in his reverence for class distinctions and the whole concept of “the divine right of kings.” The entire history cycle begins with an attack on the natural kingly order and ends with that order being restored with the defeat of Richard III and the ascension of the House of Tudor — and while modern historians might regard the Tudors, who were farther removed from the royal line than any of the rival claimants Shakespeare depicts in these plays, as parvenu pretenders, they were the reigning house when he wrote them, he had to suck up to them or risk his career or his life, and they had brought back a sense of stability (ironically reflected by Josephine Tey in the novel The Daughter of Time — which she wrote as part of her mission to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation from the damage that had been done to it by the Tudor-era propaganda of Shakespeare and the historian Raphael Holinshed, who was his principal source — when early on she joked that when British schoolchildren got to the Battle of Bosworth Field, they rejoiced because “the Wars of the Roses were over and now they could go on to the Tudors, who were dull but easy to follow”).

One running theme in these plays is the idea that kings forfeit their authority to rule when they appeal to the common people for help — Richard weakens his just status as monarch when he brings Bushy, Bagot and Green into his inner circle; and Bolingbroke only underscores the illegitimacy of his claim when he directly appeals to the commoners for support. Remember that Shakespeare was the son of a gentleman who for mysterious reasons had been dispossessed, and the thing he was proudest of at the end of his life was not that he had written a series of literary masterpieces that would be performed centuries after his death, or even that he’d kept a theatrical company together and working for at least two decades, but that he had replenished his family fortunes — reason enough that his death certificate described him as “William Shakespeare, Gent.”

Richard II is no more tragic as a character than when he realizes that the promise under which he took the throne (22 years earlier, at age 11, when even though he was a boy and couldn’t yet rule in his own right he was expected to be in some sort of magic contact with the people so that his mere presence would settle the Peasant’s Revolt) that he had a mandate from God to rule for the rest of his life, has been taken away from him by Bolingbroke with the sheer power of earthly force — despite the extent to which the concept “divine right of kings” sits oddly on us now that for centuries a mandate from the people has replaced a mandate from heaven as the social mechanism for conferring legitimacy on a ruler. (Even 20th century dictatorships regularly trotted their people out to the polls to vote in rigged “elections” to establish at least the fig leaf of popular support.)

The acting in An Age of Kings is generally extraordinary, though I did find Frank Pettingell’s Sir John Falstaff a bit of a trial (and, referencing the film My Own Private Idaho, Charles joked that Robert Hardy looked nothing like Keanu Reeves!); he’s right enough for the part, but I’ve never stopped wishing that the 20th century comedian Shakespeare seemed almost mystically to be anticipating when he created this old, fat, drunken but still lovable braggart — W. C. Fields — had had the chance to play the role on film. (The closest we came to seeing Fields in a classic is his marvelous reading of Mr. Micawber in the 1935 film David Copperfield.) Remember that Falstaff has that “Sir” on the front end of his name, indicating that he fell from at least some level of social distinction and wasn’t a tavern drunk all his life!

And though I’m not sure anyone would have guessed watching An Age of Kings that out of all the actors in it, Sean Connery would have been the one to achieve superstardom (both my mom and I thought at the time it was going to be Robert Hardy!), it’s certainly a testament to his versatility that he could be so effective as the appropriately named Hotspur — tough, hot-blooded, quick to anger and obsessively concerned with maintaining his “honor” (and with his Scottish accent far more in evidence than usual) — and just two years later make it big in an almost completely different role as James Bond, the icon of cool. — 10/8/09


I ran episode four of Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings, “The Road to Shrewsbury” — Shrewsbury being the town in the north of England, close to the Scottish border, where the decisive battle happened that ended the main rebellion against King Henry IV (there would be others, and the next two episodes deal with them) and solidified his place on the throne. The episode is based on the second half of the play Henry IV, Part 1 — Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime (which surprised Charles, who thought of the histories as sort of also-rans in the Shakespeare canon — not all that odd since aside from Henry V and Richard III, they’re not as often performed today as the comedies and especially the tragedies) and the second most popular play of the entire Elizabethan era (number one was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy), mainly due to the success of the comic character, Sir John Falstaff (reportedly based on a real-life hanger-on in Elizabeth’s court named Sir Jonas Oldacre). Falstaff was so popular, in fact, that Shakespeare wrote two more plays depicting him, Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

What amazed Charles most about this production was, as he put it, “they were doing Shakespeare on a Dr. Who budget” — the BBC had only so much money and so they went to their familiar locations when they absolutely needed an outdoor sequence, and the battle of Shrewsbury itself is merely a few isolated people squabbling in the woods. The final duel between the two Harrys (Harry Percy, Earl of Hotspur; and Harry of Monmouth, later King Henry V) in which our Prince Hal kills Hotspur and thereby establishes his war-cred for the British throne takes place on the balcony and consists mainly of Robert Hardy and Sean Connery just hacking away at each other until Hardy gets the chance to stab the future James Bond. (As I mentioned in my comments on the third episode, “Rebellion From the North,” it’s hard to imagine from seeing the two together in this film that Connery would become an international superstar and Hardy, a charismatic personality and a fine actor who holds his own as Henry against the inevitable comparisons with Laurence Olivier, wouldn’t!)

At that — as I’ve pointed out before in my notes on films set in the medieval period — this sort of rather crude sword-play was probably far closer to how medieval swordfights actually went than the elaborately choreographed duels Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power fought on-screen against Basil Rathbone (who resented dueling with Flynn because he’d actually studied fencing — Flynn hadn’t — and yet the scripts always called for him to lose), Henry Daniell, George Sanders and others from Hollywood’s villains’ hall of fame. As anemic as the battle of Shrewsbury looks in this re-creation — it looks more like something staged by an impoverished group of Wars of the Roses re-enactors than a serious attempt to depict an historical incident — it’s at least closer to the probable reality than the way director Rowland V. Lee staged Bosworth Field in the 1939 film Tower of London (which was the Richard III story transposed into a Universal horror film) as armies moving in strict formations, more like a Busby Berkeley production than the “fog of war” then or now.

Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight — also based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays — probably got it right; his budget (supplied by a Spanish production company) was adequate for a fair number of extras, but the battle as Welles staged it is a confused series of fights in which Henry IV’s forces won more by wearing down the rebels (whom they outnumbered — Shakespeare’s text says Henry IV had an army of 30,000, while two of the main rebel forces never made it to the battle at all and thus the rebels were hopelessly disadvantaged) than scoring any decisive victory in the field. It’s also worthy of note that An Age of Kings doesn’t skirt the gorier parts of the story but manages to stage them tastefully — I’m still impressed at the way David William’s eyes bulged out when Richard II is stabbed in the back by a gang of free-lance assassins who think (wrongly) it will curry them favor with the new king to eliminate the old one, and at the end of “The Road to Shrewsbury” a few bodies draped in grotesque positions powerfully suggest the brutality of the battle without going overboard on the blood and guts (and it’s that shot over which the final credits come up).

What holds up best in “The Road to Shrewsbury” is the marvelous meditation on “honor” and the ultimate silliness of war that Shakespeare built into the script — as conservative (in the literal sense) as Shakespeare may have been about the divine right of kings, and as dismissive as he was of the very idea that the common people ought to have a say in the way they were governed, he was also not at all a glorifier of war; what comes through most strongly in the play’s treatment of the battle is the sheer pointlessness of it, the way Hotspur’s obsession with “honor” literally leads to his death (when the rest of the rebel forces don’t show Hotspur’s reaction is that the victory will be even sweeter, and his “honor” even greater, if it’s achieved against the odds of numbers; and when Henry IV sends out a peace feeler before the battle, offering both an amnesty and to apologize for whatever slights the rebels think he did them if they’ll lay down their arms and give up their challenge to his power, the other rebels carefully conceal this from Hotspur because they’re afraid that the deal will assuage his concern over his “honor,” and therefore he’ll want to take it), while Shakespeare’s sympathies are clearly with Falstaff, who gives a famous speech ridiculing the whole concept of “honor” — especially that you generally have to die in battle to achieve it — and he ends up dishonorable but still alive. (This speech was incorporated by Arrigo Boïto into his libretto for Verdi’s opera Falstaff, even though the opera’s basic plot and most of its text came from The Merry Wives of Windsor.)

Overall, An Age of Kings lives up to my memories and its formidable reputation even though it’s a mystery why, after having been so ubiquitous on the nascent U.S. public broadcasting network in the early 1960’s it so totally faded from sight until its release on DVD last year. (My guess is that some of the actors in it, or their heirs, weren’t willing to authorize it to be shown again without royalty payments far larger than what the BBC could or would pay.) It’s certainly a worthwhile translation of Shakespeare’s plays into the language of television; it should be required viewing for any actor interested in playing Shakespeare; and it also serves as a good introduction both to Shakespeare in general and to some of his less performed scripts. — 10/9/09


I ran parts five and six of An Age of Kings, “The New Conspiracy” and “Uneasy Lies the Head,” which correspond to Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 2. Like a lot of modern-day producers, Shakespeare not only did a sequel to his first Henry IV play because the first one had been so popular, he emphasized the element that had been crucial to its box-office success: the character of Sir John Falstaff. At the same time, it’s a very odd play indeed because its theme is decrepitude and decay; the characters and the conflicts that seemed so fresh in the first play are old and tired here; many of the characters themselves are suffering visibly from the effects of age (when Falstaff goes to the country and meets his old friend Justice Shallow to recruit young boys for Henry IV’s army, they reminisce on their mutual friends who have died and Falstaff says, “We have seen the chimes at midnight” — a phrase Orson Welles used as the title of his movie based on the two Henry IV plays, in which he played Falstaff as well as directing), and even the ones who aren’t seem tired.

The play opens with the rebels who failed to get rid of Henry IV the first time dredging up their old, tired plot and trying again — indeed, there’s a fascinating scene at the beginning in which the first person who comes to Northumberland’s castle with news of the battle has it wrong, telling the earl that their side won a great victory; and it’s only later that he gets the truth that not only did the rebels get their asses kicked but his son Hotspur is dead. Even the first words out of the mouth of Prince Hal, who doesn’t enter until 23 minutes into the 59-minute first episode, are, “Before God, I am exceeding weary” — weary, it turns out, of the burden of having to pretend to be a wastrel so people will be surprised when he finally mounts the throne and becomes a responsible king.

The most dramatically “aged” character in the piece is, of course, King Henry IV himself — and actor Tom Fleming deserves enormous credit for portraying both the young Bolingbroke, eager rebel who goes for broke taking on Richard II and winning; the mature monarch who leads his forces to victory at Shrewsbury; and the decrepit old man, barely hanging on (he’s not seen at all in the “New Conspiracy” episode and the first glimpse we get of him is at the start of “Uneasy Lies the Head” — he’s going through a heavy-duty bout of insomnia that anticipates Macbeth’s and has led some writers to suggest that Shakespeare may have been insomniac himself), until he finally dies, regretting that the constant series of rebellions against him (a process he started by his own rebellion against Richard!) has made it impossible for him to lead a new Crusade — and Shakespeare has his dying wish be to be taken to a room in the palace called the “Jerusalem Room” so he can satisfy the prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem, “which vainly I supposed to be the Holy Land.”

Henry IV, Part 2 is full of the kinds of psychological one-on-one conflicts between strong-willed individuals that are consistently the sorts of scenes Shakespeare was best at (he was weakest, ironically, where his contemporary Marlowe was strongest: in dramatizing class conflicts and political struggles that couldn’t be translated into one-on-one terms — and it was interesting that when the Soviet film industry, under Stalin’s lash, moved in the 1930’s away from dramas of class conflict and mass revolution towards more conventional great-man movies of history, the official advice from the government to its filmmakers was to “learn from Shakespeare” how to make the conflicts between individuals stand in for the conflicts between classes).

The best parts of this sometimes creaky play are the final scenes, first between Henry IV and Prince Hal — when he tries the crown on for size, thinking his father already dead, and dad comes back to consciousness and understandably has a hissy-fit that his crazy son couldn’t wait for him to croak before starting to rule — and in which Henry IV advises his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” settling all the tiresome arguments over the succession and the ensuing civil wars by starting a foreign war and thereby uniting the country around a common enemy (and everybody in the court knows just who the common enemy will be: France, which British monarchs had been laying claim to ever since William the Conqueror took over England from his base in Normandy; indeed, as Dr. Frank C. Baxter explained in his introductions to the American showings of An Age of Kings, regrettably omitted from the DVD’s, the vests worn by the royals in the film depict both the British lion and the French fleur de lys, indicating the British monarchs’ claim to be rightful rulers of both countries) — and the final sequence, in which Sir John Falstaff shows up at Henry V’s coronation, thinking he’s going to get to be the power behind the throne, and is instead told coldly, cuttingly, calculatedly, “I know thee not, old man/Fall to thy prayers.”

Oddly, in a performance that is otherwise so insightful, Robert Hardy as Henry V almost throws away the key line and the great speech (“How ill white hairs become a fool and jester” — yet another reference to age in a play that is full of them) that follows — but that’s a minor glitch in a series that’s been uniformly well acted, reflecting the steady performing tradition that has continued in Shakespeare’s country from his day to ours with only one interruption (the 12-year Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, who as a Puritan closed down all public amusements, including all theatres, as frivolous and likely to take people’s attention away from their duty to serve God). There’s even a clever afterword where, through the final credits, we see one of the actors taking off his makeup and he delivers the postlude of Shakespeare’s play, where he promises another installment “with Sir John in it” (a promise he did not fulfill; he narrates Falstaff’s death in Henry V but does not show him as an on-stage character — although Laurence Olivier did in the 1944 film of Henry V, hiring an old music-hall star named George Robey to play Falstaff in a silent scene depicting the death that is merely talked about and speculated on in the script) and to “make you merry with fair Catherine of France,” the French princess whom Henry marries after winning his war in order to solidify his and his heirs’ claim on the French throne. (In An Age of Kings this part was played by the actor who, next to Connery, had the most illustrious subsequent career of anyone in the series: Judi Dench.) — 10/10/09


The film I picked was the third disc in An Age of Kings, the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays produced by the BBC in 1960 with a cast of those wonderful British actors that seem to recur in each generation. This contained two episodes dealing with the play Henry V, “Signs of War” and “The Band of Brothers,” and the single episode editor Eric Crozier got out of the play Henry VI, Part 1, “The Red Rose and the White.” One problem with presenting the Shakespeare history plays as a cycle is that Shakespeare wrote the second set of four — the three Henry VI plays and Richard IIIbefore he wrote the first set, and scholars still disagree about how much of the Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work. I read Henry VI, Part 1 once and came to the conclusion that only one scene in the piece could be Shakespeare’s — the scene in the garden in which people representing the two contending factions in what’s about to become a civil war pick white and red roses, respectively, to designate which side they’re on, which will become the name of the war.

It’s known that that scene was added after the rest of the play was completed because published versions that don’t credit an author and don’t contain the scene exist — and when I read the whole play the garden scene stood out with the quiet dignity and strength of its writing compared to the overheated, fustian rhetoric of the rest (the opening scene in which someone curses the “bad revolting stars” that took Henry V’s life well before his time sounds like Christopher Marlowe on a very bad day and the rest of the play was probably a collaboration among several Elizabethan hacks, though it’s worth reading as an example of the mediocre run-of-the-mill sort of Elizabethan drama that gives you more of an appreciation of Shakespeare and Marlowe just because it shows you the rut they rose above).

Henry V was Shakespeare’s last history play (aside from Henry VIII, one of his last works and not part of the cycle depicted in An Age of Kings), written in 1599 and apparently at least in part a celebration of the Earl of Essex, who was about to launch a war to subdue Ireland that Queen Elizabeth saw as an analogue to Henry V’s war for France — though as things turned out Essex, unlike Henry V, got his ass kicked by an Irish army led by the Earl of Tyrone, and the defeat cost him Elizabeth’s favor and ultimately led to the plot that finally got him arrested and executed for treason. On the surface, it’s a glorification of war and imperialism — but that’s only on the surface; as strong and decisive as Henry V appears, the play also contains a lot of dialogue questioning not only some of the actions but the justice and righteousness of his cause itself. Though this scene was deleted from An Age of Kings, the play begins with a nervous debate between two high church officials worried that the new king is going to seize the church’s assets, and accordingly when a cleric is asked for his opinion about the justice of Henry V’s claim to the French throne (in the scene that opens this presentation of the play) naturally he knows he has to give the “right” answer.

Watching An Age of Kings in this go-round I’ve been struck by the parallel between Henry V and George W. Bush — indicative that the source of Shakespeare’s endurance has been the fact that not only did he capture human nature and depict both political and personal issues with an insight rare for the time, but that human nature has changed so little that our species continues to generate situations similar to those Shakespeare wrote about. Both Henry V and George W. Bush were the sons of hereditary rulers, both had youthful periods of licentiousness and wastrel behavior that disappointed their fathers (indeed, both had more strait-laced brothers who had much more of their dad’s favor), and both ultimately rose out of their drinking and carousing to seize the responsibilities of power. The parallel isn’t entirely exact — Henry V instructs his occupying army to treat the French gently, take no French food or other goods without paying for it, and (at least until the scene in the aftermath of Agincourt in which he ordered his army to massacre the French prisoners — a major war crime we’re really not prepared for by the way Shakespeare has drawn Henry V up to that point) to take good care of their prisoners — but the arrogance of the war council with which the play opens and the sheer outrageousness of the idea that, armed with a flimsy claim to the throne of France, Henry V can install himself as king of both countries by sheer will and force of arms ring all too closely parallel to more recent bits of history.

So, when it comes to that, does the aftermath depicted in Henry VI, Part 1 — like the U.S. in Iraq, the British in France win a quick military victory (one could readily imagine Henry V posing over the battlefield at Agincourt with a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished”) followed by a long, draining occupation and the rise of an indigenous opposition led by a freedom fighter — in this case, Jeanne la Pucelle, better known these days as Joan of Arc (more on her later). Producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes had more competition on Henry V than on most of the plays in the series — in 1944 Laurence Olivier had done a big-screen feature film (shooting the battle scenes in Ireland, where there was enough unspoiled countryside to stage a medieval battle without any modern anachronisms creeping in), and in 1989 Kenneth Branagh (both starring and directing, as Olivier had) did a remake — and their version suffers in the depiction of the actual battle of Agincourt (which is basically a handful of people hacking away at each other with swords — on a 1960 BBC-TV budget they couldn’t possibly duplicate the massed longbow attacks that actually won the battle for the British), but is certainly competitive with the casting.

I haven’t seen either the Olivier or Branagh films in years, but Robert Hardy is as good a Henry V as I remember his formidable feature-film competitors as being, capturing the character’s sense of justice and morals as well as his arrogance and self-righteousness, his understanding of the common people from having hung out with them before he became king (yet another strong difference between him and George W. Bush), his ability to make quick decisions even if (like the massacre of the French prisoners) they’re not necessarily the best decisions he could have made, and above all his ability to rally a significantly outnumbered army to victory. (In the 1920’s and 1930’s football coaches studied Henry’s St. Crispian’s Day address to figure out how to do pep talks to their teams.) He’s matched by a formidable cast of supporting actors — what’s most amazing about the acting in An Age of Kings is how well the cast members mesh and how they manage to inhabit characters speaking in an unfamiliar sort of English and actually convince us they’re people living 450 years earlier — including the young (but instantly recognizable) Judi Dench as Princess Catherine of France, whom Henry marries to solidify his claim to the French throne but whom he also wants genuinely to love and be loved by.

One quirk of Shakespeare’s career is that though he is thought to have started writing plays as early as 1592 (and been involved in the theatre at least a decade before that), he really hit his stride just about at the turn of the century. Henry V and Romeo and Juliet are generally dated 1599 (and because of the Essex connection we have a better idea when Henry V premiered than we do for most of Shakespeare’s plays!) and the play generally assumed to be Shakespeare’s greatest, Hamlet, is from 1600. If one watched An Age of Kings second-half first, and thereby ordered the plays in the sequence in which they were written rather than the one in which they take place, one could get a pretty good picture of Shakespeare’s maturation as a writer from the relative crudities of the Henry VI plays to the melodramatics of Richard III and then, in the four plays starting with Richard II, the coming-together of Shakespeare’s true voice and his dramatic and emotional sophistication at its best.

One of the most interesting aspects of Henry V is the extent to which religion — only peripherally mentioned in the earlier plays, and then usually in a context of frustration (Richard II aghast that God, who supposedly installed him as king, is allowing him to be deposed by a mere mortal; Henry IV’s intention to atone for his sin in deposing Richard by mounting a Crusade, systematically frustrated by the unrest at home and the attempts to organize a revolution against him, one of which — at the start of Henry IV, Part 2 — is led by a clergyman) — takes center stage; with the church already having been suborned, blackmailed or whatever into giving divine blessing to Henry’s actions, the characters cross themselves incessantly and are constantly appealing to God’s favor on their enterprise. (Henry’s eve-of-battle pep talk even keys on the saint whose name-day is the day the battle is taking place.)

Another interesting parallel that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t watching the plays in sequence, in a context like this in which they’re being presented as a single story instead of separate works, is the similarity between Hotspur’s eve-of-battle attitude in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry’s attitude here — particularly when both rally the troops by saying that, contrary to showing fear at the way they’re outnumbered, they should glory in being outnumbered because then the victory will be all the sweeter. Though this really doesn’t come through in Shakespeare, other tellings of the story — like A. M. Maughan’s novel Harry of Monmouth — stress that Henry and Hotspur were boyhood friends (their fathers, after all, were friends and allies until they broke spectacularly right after Richard II’s fall), grew up together and were similar in a lot of ways, and in Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV audibly wishes Hotspur were his son (just as in Henry IV, Part 2 he wishes his younger son, John of Lancaster, were the heir to his throne — as I noted above, yet another parallel to George H. W. Bush and his relative estimation of his children’s fitness to rule; it’s well known that Daddy Bush thought it would be Jeb, not W., who’d be the second President Bush).

All the rich allusions and complexities in the first four plays in the Age of Kings cycle have the unintended consequence of making Henry VI, Part 1 seem even weaker than it is — despite a marvelous directorial trick by Michael Hayes: opening the Henry VI, Part 1 episode with the same scene (albeit from a different angle) with which Henry V ended: Henry V’s ceremonial coffin with his crown and battle helmet on it. In some ways Henry VI, Part 1 continues the parallel to more recent events — the collapse of an occupation following an imperial war leads to, and opens the door for, vicious unrest at home (though it wasn’t what Mao was talking about when he coined the phrase “turning imperialist wars into civil wars,” that’s just what happens in the cycle) and the replacement of a strong-willed, decisive leader with a weak one who tries to make nice with all the factions and succeeds only in greasing the skids of his own downfall.

Admittedly the parallel between Henry VI and Obama is a lot more distant than that between Henry V and George W. Bush — after all, one of the downsides of an hereditary monarchy is the fact that it can hand over at least technical power to a child, which is what happened to Henry VI (and one of the bad guys in the play, a corrupt cleric, literally tells us of his intent to kidnap the boy king and hold him hostage so he, not the official regent, can become the actual ruler); and whatever you think of Obama and his performance in office thus far, though he may not have been the progressive crusader his farther-out followers were hoping for, he’s not the constitutional idiot Henry VI grew up to be (at least in Shakespeare’s plays; as with his other historical characters, there’s been a revisionist literature that’s gone back to the primary sources to re-evaluate him and change our Bard-conditioned point of view towards him) either!

After the incandescent brilliance of Henry V (the character and the play), the cut-down version of Henry VI, Part 1 called “The Red Rose and the White” is disappointing, clearly the product of a less sophisticated and talented author (whether or not they were the same person!), and though the acting remains as finely honed as throughout the series and the production values also remain about the same (with Michael Hayes actually being quite creative in his use of a meager BBC-TV budget), the magic just doesn’t quite gel in such a relatively minor play. The only truly complex character in Henry VI, Part 1 is Joan of Arc, who’s going to be a problem in any modern production because in Shakespeare’s time she was considered the witch (literally!) who had cost the English control of France; under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (who canonized her in 1920) and more recent playwrights like Schiller, Shaw, Anouilh and Anderson she’s been rehabilitated and is now regarded as not only a saint but as an icon of liberation and feminism.

Shakespeare meant her as a villain, but at least in the Age of Kings presentation she comes across as a lot more complex than that: savvy enough to see through the imposture of the Dauphin substituting one of his dukes for himself at their first meeting, genuinely inspiring and at least somewhat sympathetic (though at least part of that is how the play comes off to a modern-day viewer with a healthy skepticism towards imperialist adventures of all kinds and a conviction that any occupation — Britain’s of France in the 1400’s, the Nazi occupations during World War II, Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the U.S.’s occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq — will engender a home-grown resistance) until she goes crazy during her trial and stages an almost operatic mad scene at her exit. At least part of the complexity comes from the way Michael Hayes chose to portray her; within the limits of Shakespeare’s script (at least in this highly edited version) he makes her a strong-willed character and even dresses the actress playing her, Eileen Atkins, the way Otto Preminger dressed and made up Jean Seberg in his film of Shaw’s Saint Joan: with close-cropped blonde hair (the real Joan, if the contemporary depictions of her are to be believed, had long brown hair) and a penchant for white unisex garments. Shakespeare (or whoever wrote these scenes), seizing on the English propaganda that described Joan of Arc the way American writers today would depict Osama bin Laden, tried to make her a monomaniacal villainess — but at least as presented here some of Joan’s humanity comes through, and it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for someone who is, after all, fighting for the liberation of her country against a foreign oppressor. — 10/17/09


Our night’s “feature” was “The Fall of a Protector” and “The Rabble from Kent,” the tenth and eleventh episodes of the BBC’s 1960 Shakespeare-based miniseries An Age of Kings, corresponding to Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. The production of An Age of Kings was one of the best things that ever happened to Shakespeare on film or video, but the attempt to use his plays to dramatize the complete history of the Wars of the Roses from the fall of Richard II in 1399 to the death of Richard III and ascension of Henry Tudor to the throne of England in 1485 had one major problem: Shakespeare wrote the first four plays in the cycle — Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry Vafter he wrote the second four, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III.

Indeed, it’s not altogether clear how much of the three Henry VI plays are Shakespeare’s work; I recall reading Henry VI, Part 1 start-to-finish and being amazed at what a dreadful play it really is, with only one scene (the one in the garden, where the people who will ultimately lead the civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York pluck roses from two bushes, one of red roses and one of white ones, to symbolize which side they’re on, thereby earning the conflict the name “Wars of the Roses”) clearly Shakespeare’s work. In a play otherwise filled with fustian rhetoric and dull hackwork, that scene stood out with the quiet dignity and strength that are Shakespeare’s hallmarks as a writer. It’s not clear exactly who wrote the rest of the play — printed versions exist that pre-date Shakespeare’s production and do not include the garden scene, indicating that Shakespeare added that to a script otherwise by other hands to tie it in with the two other plays in the sequence — though Christopher Marlowe’s name has been offered, and the opening scene of Henry VI, Part 1 might be Marlowe on a really bad day.

Henry VI, Part 2 seems more “Shakespearean,” but there are still long stretches of dull or hacky dialogue it’s hard to match with our perception of Shakespeare honed on his truly great plays. Offhand I suspect that the scenes involving Henry VI himself and his queen, Margaret of Anjou (whom he married as part of a corrupt dynastic deal negotiated by her lover, William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk) are Shakespeare’s work, but it’s hard to tell about the rest. Part of the problem with Henry VI, Part 2 is that it’s really not a self-contained work — the three parts of Henry VI really do seem as if they were written to be mini-series episodes rather than stand-alone dramas; the ending of Part 2, with Richard, Duke of York delivering a soliloquy about how he intends to exploit the conflicts within Henry’s court to grab the throne for himself, is as obviously a set-up for the next episode, rather than an actual resolution of the plot, as the ending of The Matrix Reloaded was.

Henry VI, Part 2 suffers from a confusing plot line in which so many dastardly conspiracies are being hatched against Henry’s reign it’s hard to keep track of them all or remember from scene to scene which side everybody’s on (frankly, I miss the commentaries Frank C. Baxter taped for the U.S. release of these programs that helped explain it all and allowed people who didn’t grow up in Britain and therefore don’t have a thorough familiarity with this slice of its history to follow the plot and remember who was who); between the time he wrote these plays and the time he did his masterpieces Shakespeare improved not only as a poet and dialogue writer but as a dramatic constructionist as well. It also didn’t help that the production values of An Age of Kings — particularly the casting, which had been so impeccable in the first half of the series (Robert Hardy as Henry V — holding his own in the inevitable comparisons with Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh — plus Sean Connery as Hotspur and Judi Dench as Henry’s Queen Katherine!) — started to fall down in this part of the series.

Yes, I know Henry VI was supposed to have been an unworldly young man and a religious devotee who prayed while his kingdom crumbled around him (watching the story in sequence it’s hard not to see the parallel between the similarly unworldly Richard II, who was overthrown by the far more capable Henry Bolingbroke, and Henry VI, whose throne was threatened by Richard, Duke of York), but I really doubt whether either the real Henry VI or the one Shakespeare envisioned when he wrote the play were as neurasthenic as Terry Scully plays him here. The other actors are quite capable but there’s a reason why the people from this series who did have subsequent major careers appeared in the earlier episodes — the standouts are Mary Morris as Margaret of Anjou (who was the subject of the first individual line from a Shakespeare play that became famous out of context — “O tiger’s heart, wrapped in a woman’s hide!”); she senses that the character is essentially Shakespeare’s warmup for Lady Macbeth and plays her that way — and whoever played her lover, the Duke of Suffolk, who turns in a marvelously slimy reading of a character who first sets up the wife of Henry’s uncle and regent, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (John Ringham), for execution as a witch; then has Humphrey murdered on the eve of his trial for treason for fear Henry would acquit him; and ultimately falls himself at the hands of a subtler schemer, Richard, Duke of York (played by Jack May in a surprisingly overwrought style; mostly director Michael Hayes stopped his actors from scenery-chewing but May got away from him and did his beaver impression on the sets), who sets up an agitator named Jack Cade from Kent to stir up the people in London to revolt against the king and royal authority in general (it was Cade who said, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” and later when he denounces someone as a traitor just because he speaks French, it was hard not to see Cade as the great-great ancestor of talk radio) and then marches his own army from Ireland, ostensibly to restore order but actually to set up a military presence in the capital so he can depose the king.

Henry VI, Part 2 is also considerably gorier than Shakespeare got later; though Titus Andronicus (also an early work) has the reputation as Shakespeare’s goriest play, this one comes pretty close — and director Hayes doesn’t decorously cut away from the murders; he displays most of them right on camera before our eyes. It’s worth having An Age of Kings on DVD and it’s fascinating to make my acquaintance with it again — the original miniseries was actually my introduction to Shakespeare — but it does tend to sag in the middle. — 10/28/09


Last night Charles and I ran episodes 12 and 13 of An Age of Kings, the 15-part BBC-TV cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays (all but the first one, King John, and the last one, Henry VIII) telling the full story of British history from 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II and became Henry IV, to 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated the army of Richard III at Bosworth Field, took the Plantagenets off the British throne and inaugurated the House of Tudor, which was still ruling when Shakespeare began his career and wrote these plays. Episodes 12, “The Morning’s War,” and 13, “The Sun in Splendour,” are drawn from the play Henry VI, Part 3, and after the lameness of much of the writing in the first two Henry VI plays (only one scene in the extant Henry VI, Part 1 is clearly Shakespeare’s work and the extent of his authorship of Part 2 is also dubious) it’s a relief to reach Part 3 and experience Shakespeare finally becoming Shakespeare. Though it still has a lot of the gore characteristic of Elizabethan drama in general — not only are the dramatis personae knocked off right and left, they’re killed in full view of the audience (director Michael Hayes averts his cameras from any actual skin-piercing and bloodletting with the swords and daggers, but he gets us close enough that we get the point — it would only be in later plays like Macbeth that Shakespeare would keep the horrors off-stage and realize that leaving them to the audience’s imagination just made them that much more horrible) — we also can sense Shakespeare growing and maturing, not only in the sheer poetic beauty of the writing but also in its quiet dignity and strength (Shakespeare tended at his best to underwrite at a time when most of his contemporaries — even his best one, Marlowe — were melodramatically overwriting). The soliloquy by Henry VI that the producers of An Age of Kings used as the source for the title of Episode 12 reveals Shakespeare becoming Shakespeare:

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with glowing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day or night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind.
Now sways it that way, like that selfsame sea
Forced to retire by the fury of the wind.
Sometimes the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal poise of this fell war.

This speech is not only considerably more eloquent than anything we’ve heard in the first two Henry VI plays, it’s also a good summing-up of the Wars of the Roses as Shakespeare depicted them, complete with dastardly murders and dazzling reversals: Edward IV (Julian Glover), who like a more recent U.S. President had a hard time keeping his dick in his pants, assaults the unassailable virtue of the widow Elizabeth Gray and then finds that the only way she’ll let him screw her is if he marries her. He does so, and promptly pisses off the Earl of Warwick (Frank Windsor), who receives the news while in France negotiating a deal with the French king for Edward to marry a French princess, Bona (Tamara Hinchco). With Warwick and Queen Margaret of Anjou (Mary Morris) both in the French court at the same time bidding for the support of the French king (and it’s indicative of how fast the British power had faded that once Henry V had conquered France, and now the competing sides in a British civil war are bidding for France’s support), Warwick responds by changing sides and, now that he’s deposed Henry VI (Terry Scully) in favor of Edward IV of York, now he signs on with Margaret and plots to restore Henry VI to the throne — which he does, even recruiting Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence (Patrick Garland), to fight against him — only at the last minute George switches sides again and returns to his brother’s fold, thereby providing the decisive forces that allow the York side to win once and for all.

This back-and-forth plotting and abrupt switches in loyalty make Henry VI, Part 3 sound more like a Mafia story than a slice of British history (and though the Mafia were centuries in the future when Shakespeare wrote, Italy was already notorious for gangs of banditti and Shakespeare, who set many of his plays in Italy, probably knew about them). Henry VI, Part 3 is a better play than its two immediate predecessors, but it’s still far below the first four plays in the cycle (which Shakespeare wrote later, even though they take place first), and in general the weaker plays seemed to inspire the Age of Kings producers less and draw weaker casting.

Terry Scully as Henry VI seems to me to be the low point of the series, acting-wise; yes, the guy was supposed to have been a religion-obsessed wimp, but even so it’s hard to imagine he was as weak and pathetic as Scully plays him. His appearance in the role seems to me to be the biggest mistake in an otherwise marvelously cast show — certainly the Yorkist pretenders have it all over him in terms of butchness. Jack May is properly charismatic as Richard, father of the clan; Glover is appropriately tall, blond, a bon vivant and a good soldier even if not exactly the brightest bulb in the kingdom as Edward IV; and Paul Daneman plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester — later Richard III — more as a conventional scheming villain than a devil from hell, though the BBC makeup department saddled him with an anachronistic haircut that makes him look more like a 1950’s U.S. army officer than a medieval prince, and Shakespeare himself sticks him with a motivation to become king even while his brother Edward still lives, when even the historians who agree that Richard was a murderer still acknowledge the depth of the love between the brothers. What does come through in the body language between Julian Glover and Paul Daneman is how much Richard the hunchback (though the “hunch” is de-emphasized in his makeup and costuming here) envies his older brother’s attractiveness, charisma and devil-may-care way with women. — 11/10/09


The film we watched last night was the two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III that made up the final episodes, “The Dangerous Brother” and “The Boar Hunt,” of the 1960 BBC-TV miniseries An Age of Kings. The shows were originally telecast in the U.K. at two-week intervals from April 28 to November 17, 1960 — and though they were clearly taped in a studio without an audience present, I suspect that the first airings of these shows were “live” because occasionally the actors make slips in the dialogue that one expects in a real-time performance but would ordinarily be edited out and retaken in a studio production. Shakespeare wrote the last four plays in this eight-play chronological sequence — the three parts of Henry VI and Richard IIIbefore he wrote the first four (Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry V), and Richard III is the earliest one of the eight that is still part of the standard dramatic repertoire.

Not surprisingly, given the fact that Shakespeare was living and writing in the age of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, Richard III comes off as a black-hearted villain and essentially a serial killer — though less in the psychopathic sense and more like a would-be Mafia don murdering his way to the head of the “family.” At the same time, by 1594 (the date usually thought of as that of Richard III’s premiere) Shakespeare had developed into a subtle enough writer that Richard III isn’t just a villain — and an actor playing him has to register the various moods, now cajoling, now flattering, now promising, now stern and ruthless, Richard assumes to do his dirty work and put himself on the throne of England. In An Age of Kings Richard was played by Paul Daneman, who blessedly avoids the kinds of scenery-chewing some Richards have fallen into and manages to make him totally believable; one gets his cruelty but also his charm, his ability to use his disabilities (his hunchback and his “withered arm,” which he claims he got from sorcery committed by his brother-in-law) to evoke sympathy for his plight.

Richard III is pretty much a one-man show, more so than any other play in the cycle (not even Henry V — the yin to Richard III’s yang in that in Shakespeare’s version of history Henry V is supposed to represent the ideal of a great king and Richard III an equally perfect example of an evil one — presents its protagonist so much front and center and reduces the rest of the cast to supporting roles), especially since Shakespeare uses the soliloquy device more than he had in the rest of the history cycle, periodically interrupting the action so that Richard can tell the audience just what he’s after and how he intends to go about getting it in the next scene. The scene in which Richard seduces Anne and gets her to agree to marry him even though he killed her previous husband Edward and his father, Henry VI, is one of Shakespeare’s most audacious inventions — and a singularly difficult one to pull off, especially when staged (as Shakespeare intended, and as it’s done here) with the corpse of Henry VI in its coffin right there, on stage, as Richard performs his macabre wooing, and it’s a testament to Daneman’s acting skills and Michael Hayes’ direction of him that he pulls it off. (Terry Scully, who played the living Henry VI, gets an acting credit for the role at the end of “The Dangerous Brother” even though he’s only seen as a face through the window in Henry’s coffin.)

The final episode, “The Boar Hunt,” was 75 minutes long (the series episodes were billed as an hour in length but several of them — including both halves of Henry IV, Part 1 and the last half of Henry IV, Part 2 — went considerably over that) and is the one in which Richard finally becomes king but doesn’t have that good a time on the throne — one gets the impression he wonders why he bothered — especially with Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond (one point of confusion, especially to non-Brits, with these plays is the sheer multiplicity of names the characters have — it’s unclear whether “Plantagenet” or “York” is Richard’s birth last name and when he was appointed Duke of Gloucester that word, too, was added to his name — while at the same time they seemed to have only a limited store of first names; as I remarked in my notes on the film Tower of London, Universal’s 1939 adaptation of the Richard III story but with Shakespeare’s dialogue replaced by that of Robert N. Lee, the director Rowland V. Lee’s brother, so many of the dramatis personae were named either Richard or Edward it got awfully confusing and hard to follow after a while), first in exile in France, then sneaking back to England and finally meeting Richard at the battle of Bosworth Field and ultimately defeating him and taking the throne as Henry VII, founder of the House of Tudor.

Shakespeare presents him as an idealized hero — his Tudor propagandist purposes outweighed his usual condemnation of royal usurpers and forced him to present that one in a positive light — and it was ironic to hear him promise over Richard’s dead body to “proclaim a pardon as to the soldiers fled/That in submission will return to us” when the real Henry VII did exactly the opposite: he actually back-dated the start of his reign to the day before the battle so he could, and did, charge those who had fought on Richard’s side with treason and have them executed. (I treasure Josephine Tey’s marvelous novel The Daughter of Time, which in the course of an investigation by a hospitalized Scotland Yard detective fascinated by a reproduction of a contemporary painting of Richard III develops a case exonerating him of the murder of Edward IV’s sons — but you don’t have to whitewash Richard and find him innocent to see Henry VII as a creep who willfully had most of the surviving claimants to the throne put to death to avoid any attempts to repeat the Wars of the Roses, or to wonder about the historians who portray Richard as a black-hearted villain for murdering his nephews while giving Henry VII a pass on similar crimes: as Lacey Baldwin Smith wrote in The Realm of England, “By the very nature of kingship, the elimination of rival contenders to the throne through exile, battle, or execution became the foundation of government policy” under Henry VII — the same argument Richard’s apologists could have made had he won the battle of Bosworth Field.)

Certainly Jerome Willis as Richmond exudes charisma — he comes off as something like a young Elvis and quite a bit more exciting than the real Henry VII (who hasn’t attracted much interest in historians — or dramatists, for that matter; Shakespeare never wrote a play solely about him but, when he took up British history again towards the end of his career, went straight to Henry VIII), ably fulfilling the pro-Tudor propaganda intent of the play (indeed, as a boy Richmond had appeared towards the end of Henry VI, Part 3 in one of those bald-faced “plantings” of a minor character and hints of his forthcoming major importance that is just the sort of cheap dramatic gimmick it’s especially embarrassing to find in a work by the man who’s supposedly the greatest playwright of all time).

One thing I hadn’t realized about An Age of Kings before is that many of the actors played more than one character through the duration of the series — “The Boar Hunt” features Frank Pettingell, who’d played Sir John Falstaff, as the Bishop of Ely; Jack May, who’d played Richard, Duke of York (Edward IV’s and Richard III’s father), as Lord Stanley, whose abrupt change of allegiance and shift of his army from Richard to Richmond gave Richmond the decisive advantage at Bosworth Field (in Shakespeare’s play Stanley is depicted as fighting for Richard — or agreeing to — only because Richard is holding his son hostage; once he receives word that his son has escaped and is safe, he goes with the side he really wanted to be on in the first place); and even Julian Glover, who was Edward IV in the previous episodes, turns up here as the Earl of Oxford.

What makes Richard III a fitting end to the Age of Kings series is mostly Daneman’s smooth performance — he evokes such great names of the acting past as Charles Laughton (he even gets a Laughtonesque scene in which he, as the king, greedily gnaws on chicken bones, though director Hayes at least stopped short of having him throw the bones over his shoulder), John Barrymore (whose one surviving film clip as a Shakespearean actor is as Richard III in a scene from Henry VI, Part 3 in the 1929 Warners revue The Show of Shows) and Basil Rathbone — indeed, Daneman’s Richard often struck me as very much the way Rathbone would have played him in Tower of London if he’d been allowed to use Shakespeare’s dialogue. And what makes Richard III as Shakespeare wrote it a fitting end to the eight-play cycle is, once again, Shakespeare’s greatest strength as a dramatist: not his genius as a poet nor his talent for dramatic structure, but his understanding of human nature and his ability to depict common human “types” that have hardly changed from his day to ours; though both the real Richard III’s life and Shakespeare’s depiction of it came long before Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein lived, there were parts of this play that reminded me of all of them! — 11/18/09