Last night KPBS aired the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, Part 1 produced as part of a four-episode BBC miniseries called “The Hollow Crown” — a title deliberately evoking comparison to An Age of Kings, the miniseries the BBC did in 1960 that consisted of 15 one-hour segments (though some were actually longer than that!) telling the entire history of England from 1399 to 1485 as depicted by Shakespeare in eight of his 10 plays about British history. (Most editions of Shakespeare’s works divide his plays rather arbitrarily into “comedies,” “tragedies,” and “histories” — though for some reason there are a few borderline cases like Macbeth that got lumped in with the “tragedies” even though it’s not only based on an actual incident in Scottish history but Shakespeare’s source for the story was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was also his source for most of the “history” plays.) In 1960 the BBC shot the entire cycle; in 2012 they only shot the first four plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) and they presented each play complete in a TV-movie format of 2 ½ to 3 hours instead of segmenting it in the middle to spread out the show into more and shorter episodes.
Also the producers of The Hollow Crown did not have the same actor play the same character wherever he (or she) appears. I noticed this almost from the opening credits, in which Jeremy Irons was prominently featured even though there was no indication of what part he played — which made me briefly wonder if he were going to play Sir John Falstaff, the character Shakespeare intended largely as comic relief but who captured the British imagination of the late 1500’s so much that not only did Henry IV, Part 1 become Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime but he wrote two sequelae to it (Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor) just to exploit his popular character. Instead Irons played King Henry IV, taking over the part from Rory Kinnear, who played him in the series’ adaptation of Richard II. That meant we were deprived of the opportunity to see a single actor play the entire character arc of Henry IV from bold usurper through rebellion-wracked monarch to decrepit old man fearful of what’s going to happen when he croaks and his wastrel son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the Marvel Thor movies and a quite good actor even if he lacks the almost unearthly charisma of Laurence Olivier or Robert Hardy, who played this role in An Age of Kings), later King Henry V, takes over. In An Age of Kings Tom Fleming played Henry IV throughout and turned in one of the most remarkable acting tours de force ever put on film, but Rory Kinnear wasn’t offered a similar opportunity — not that I minded: from the moment the show depicted Henry IV and his court, Jeremy Irons’ authority as an actor, his ability to speak Shakespearean dialogue as if he talked that way all the time (some critic whose name I have long since forgotten said that was the sine qua non of making Shakespeare work on stage) and his obvious experience allowed him to create an unforgettable performance.
It also helped that this show had a different director from Richard II — Richard Eyre instead of Rupert Goold — and Eyre managed not only to bring the play badly needed energy but got the actors in general to behave far more naturalistically and with less of the deadly “reverence” for Shakespeare’s language (to paraphrase the Bard, too many actors who play Shakespeare today love him not wisely but too well) that largely sank Richard II. Where Henry IV, Part 1 was weakest, oddly, was in the casting of Falstaff: Simon Russell Beale got the part, and for a moment in his first scene (oddly Eyre, who did his own script from the play as well as directing, reversed the order of the first two scenes and had the play open with Falstaff and Hal in the Boar’s Head Tavern, then cut to Henry IV’s court) I thought that Beale might be agreeing with me that the actor who should have played Falstaff was W. C. Fields (that no producer ever thought of filming Fields as Falstaff is one of the great cultural tragedies of the 20th century; whether Fields ever read Shakespeare or not — he liked to pretend he was a school dropout and a cultural rube, but when he was offered Micawber in a film of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield he said that not only did he love the book, he loved Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers even better and would like to film it if Copperfield was a hit — he had essentially reinvented the overweight, alcoholic, braggart Falstaff character for the 20th century and both he and the rest of us deserved a shot at him playing the original) because he seemed to be speaking the lines with at least hints of Fields’ drawling, exaggerated delivery. As things went on, I got tired of Beale’s relentless humorlessness — made up with a grey but well-kempt beard that made him look like a slightly more dissolute version of Karl Marx, he seemed to have taken the hint that Falstaff was a figure of pathos as well as comedy too much to heart and lost sight of the comedy completely in search of the pathos. (Once again The Hollow Crown was the reverse of the 1960 An Age of Kings — the Falstaff in An Age of Kings, Frank Pettingell, went too relentlessly for the funnybone and missed the pathos almost completely.)
Eyre also made some weird changes in the script, eliminating the brilliant ending of the scene in which Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Hal and Henry IV confronting each other and putting Falstaff’s speech lampooning the whole idea of “honor” before, not after, the Battle of Shrewsbury. It’s to this version’s credit that not only did they have a bigger budget to stage the actual battle, but Eyre knew what to do with it (though I still suspect Orson Welles’ staging of the same scene in his Falstaff movie, Chimes at Midnight, is probably the closest of anyone’s to what medieval war actually looked like), and the final confrontation between Prince Hal and Hotspur (Joe Armstrong — whose actual father, Alun Armstrong, plays Hotspur’s father Northumberland) is oddly disappointing. It doesn’t help that the younger Armstrong, though nice-looking and properly impetuous for the part, is up against the competition of the young Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in An Age of Kings — I don’t think Joe Armstrong is going to launch a franchise that will last decades and make himself a superstar! I think Charles summed up the difference between An Age of Kings and This Hollow Crown when he said afterwards that the makers of the 1960 version (producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes) were doing something “educational,” something that would introduce Shakespeare to a mass audience that hadn’t seen him professionally performed before (even if they’d had to read him in school!), whereas the makers of The Hollow Crown were going, not for education or entertainment, but for Prestige with a capital “P.” The message this version is sending out to the world is, “See what wonderful things we can do with the fabulous British actors, the words of the greatest English-language writer, and a decent but not lavish production budget! We can make movies of our natural treasures” — and embalm them in the process, though in fairness Henry IV, Part 1 in this series is a far better production than Richard II and doesn’t have the curiously embalmed quality either of its predecessor in the series or the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t so much dramatize Fitzgerald’s novel as encase it in amber.