Year of Shakespeare: Henry IV – Part 1, on the BBC

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Henry IV – Part 1, dir. Richard Eyre, 7 July 2012 on BBC 2

By Will Sharpe

It was perhaps fitting, tuning in to this instalment of the BBC’s Hollow Crown, that the start was delayed by action from the All England Club. While Johnny Marray was busy becoming the first British men’s doubles champion for over seventy years, we were awaiting the play that – as Simon Schama had devoted a good portion of his Shakespeare telling us some two weeks earlier – is the place we go to find it. All England. From the lowliest ostler under Charles’ wain to the burdened King under the canopies of costly state, Shakespeare gave it a local habitation and a name, and, more importantly, a voice.

It is curious then to see in Richard Eyre’s Henry IV Part 1 a distinctly more Brueghelian than Shakespearean figuration of England in a production that seems primarily visual in its storytelling aims. Brueghel’s surrealism is absent, but the warm tones of his alehouse interiors, straight out of ‘The Peasant Wedding’, in which life is celebrated, and, in the latter half, the white lonely expanses of ‘Hunters in the Snow’, in which it is tested, are powerfully evoked. There might also be a touch of Beerbohm Tree in the curious visual sentimentality about the Eastcheap scenes, not least because that is where we begin, with a remarkably clean-cut Hal – his anachronistically designer-looking leather doublet and blond locks out of place even in this sanitised vision – looking fondly at a snoring Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) with his Doll. All around are the filmic tropes of yeasty Shakespearean low-life: black toothy grins; thirsty quaffing from earthenware goblets, with the overspill soaking into thick whiskers; buttocks slapped in ribald jest; shirts and smocks loosely, post-coitally thrown on; every available hanging adorned with drying linen or dead rabbits. This is all in sharp contrast to the slate-grey chastity of the lifeless court, a world of covering up under furred gowns, fingerless gloves and sheaves of parchment. We intercut between both at a remarkably brisk clip until Hal’s ‘I know you all’, rendered as a voice over as he picks his way through the teeming tavern, brings phase one to a close before we have really stretched our legs.

The unfortunate effect of such haste is that much of the rich linguistic texture that this play takes unusual leisure to wallow in is emptied out like piss from latticed windows. Of course it’s only a two-and-a-half hour film so cuts are unavoidable, yet England as seen in the play’s great variety doesn’t have a pictorial life; it is found, rather, woven into the infinite magnanimities of speech. Falstaff surely suffers the most in this textually stripped back environment, the Gadshill robbery being an excellent case in point: instead of his corpulently unimprovable musings on how to get his thick rotundity off the earth once down to listen for horses we get a long shot of a flustered fatso amidst a dusky wood, intercut with close ups of the dashing Prince and Poins laughing wordlessly.

Falstaff’s constant, mercurial soliloquising is one of the more insistent reminders that this play, however we might try to purge it of non-naturalistic features in order to serve it up as a screen narrative, is incorrigibly stagebound. Not for Eyre though. This is first and foremost a film, and one that insists you lock yourself squarely into the taut emotional patterns dictated by the lens’s roving eye. The eye is a lot less roving than that of Rupert Goold’s Richard II, in which the camera frequently came down with the documentary shakes, but that was in keeping with the private struggles of an individual in continual invasive close-up. Here our subject is a nation, and the camerawork is staid and magisterial, the mood sober and cold. Falstaff’s honour speech comes as a mournful voice-over as he troops, Henry V-like, around a wintry camp preparing for battle, and it is the battle, indeed the artful filming of the battle, to which the whole thing ultimately aspires, borrowing heavily from Branagh’s muddy clashes, the snowy wastes (largely CGI shots to my eye) lending an extra gravitas, though again pictures take precedence over words.

Beale, in the performance he does give, makes, as always, bold and coherent decisions. His is a thoughtful, morose Falstaff, defying almost every textual cue for bombastic confidence, the lines suffused with fatigued acceptance. At Hal’s ‘I do, I will’ we see a close up of glassy-eyed bewilderment, a sad foreshadowing of the rejection to come, though I hope he still has somewhere left to go by then. The infinite resources of personality in the role are dramatically pared back, yet it is perhaps the most daring, intelligently restrained reading of it I have seen, opting for cagier strokeplay where most would swipe for six. The rest of the cast is strong, albeit unnecessarily famous. Michelle Dockery has, for better or worse, managed to transcend her existence as Michelle Dockery in the British public’s imagination, and is now Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, having drunk from the poisoned chalice of being in a television series that has become, against all reasonable expectations, insanely popular. It is unusual, therefore, to find her cast in what is, in this production at least, a minor role as Lady Percy, one that could have been less distractingly filled by an actress who needed the work. But it is consistent with the project as a whole, where no role goes unfilled by the usual suspects of big-budget British costume drama. Patrick Stewart and Davids Suchet and Bradley took minor parts in Richard II, while here Julie Walters gives her best Mrs Overall as Mistress Quickly. Alun Armstrong, mainstay of all BBC Dickens adaptations, skirts the margins as a broad Geordie Northumberland, though he will of course come into his own in Part 2 when he is called upon to mourn the loss of his son, Hotspur, played with compelling force by his real-life son, Joe Armstrong.

The most cavernous, lonely halls are chosen as resonating chambers – the crown is, after all, hollow – for the oaky tones of Jeremy Irons’ voice as Henry (the capital of which is not lost on the rest of the performers, with Tom Hiddleston’s solid Hal having a ‘Being Jeremy Irons’ moment in the play within the play). Irons also embodies the film’s concern with having the two plays meet somewhere in the middle. He throws up at one point prior to the battle (in which he takes no part), and clutches his ear at another, having worn an invalid’s beanie hat throughout, importing some of the sickness that will, and should, come later. The overarching desire to impose an atmospheric continuity is a shame, as its absence is one of the great triumphs of the stage originals. Part 1 must remain unsullied by such steeping in overt artificiality and disease just as surely as Part 2 needs to leave behind the promises of health and purpose if we are to avoid sidestepping the shock of its darker moods. How they are achieved will be very interesting to see. A sadder and less prolix Part 1 than is probably necessary, but still one with much to recommend it.


What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Will Sharpe

Will Sharpe is one of the General Editors of the forthcoming RSC/Palgrave Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others, as well as a Chief Associate Editor of the RSC Shakespeare individual volumes series, for which he co-edited Cymbeline with Jonathan Bate. He is one of the General Editors of Digital Renaissance Editions, and has taught at the University of Warwick, Nottingham Trent University and The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, where he is Visiting Lecturer.
  • lidiot

    Julie Walter’s should stick to comedy. she read her death of Falstaff like someone hiding what emotion should look like, barely hiding her smirk.

  • Pete_Orford

    The style of Richard II is quite different to Henry IV, but then arguably so is Henry V, so or the latter to be more connected in casting and character than the former seems contradictory. The production that set the standard for this tetralogy was in Stratford in 1951, directed by Anthony Quayle. There were earlier productions of more than one history together, but this particular production made the story all about Hal, and his inescapable fate of becoming Henry V. As such, Richard II became the play without the central hero in it, and was therefore interpreted by Quayle as a prologue, both part of the main story and also separate to it (The Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings).

    As for (dis)continuity of casting, in the 1951 production Bolingroke and Northumberland were played by the same actors, but Hotspur was played by two different actors: Robert Hardy played him in Richard II, while the title role was played by Michael Redgrave, who then took on the role of Hotspur in the succeeding play. This both reflects actor vanity and the practicalities of presenting the plays on stage: Hotspur is a small part in one play and a major part in the other, so directors must either a) cast an unknown in one, and expect them to carry a major role in the other, b) cast a star in the role, and ask them to regularly play a bit part in the earlier play throughout the season, or c) treat them as two different parts and cast accordingly.

    Now you would think television might bypass this dilemma somewhat, so the decision not to cast continuously can be assumed as deliberate rather than forced. It seems the reason here is the passage of time introduced between the two plays which can be seen as an excuse for casting different actors in the role; in the original text of Richard II, as you say, Bolingbroke talks of Hal as though he is already grown up, but this line was cut here so it allows to suggest that there has been a considerable amount of time between the events of the two plays. None of which explains why the characters have been interpreted differently – obviously there are different directors, but you would have thought they would have been in communication.

  • Will Sharpe

     And now that I think about it I realise I’m wrong about the 2000 productions as David Troughton played Bolingbroke/Henry IV. But the aesthetics of both shows (white box for Richard II and leafy naturalistic sets for the Henrys) were so different that it felt like being in two different worlds.

  • Will Sharpe

    Cheers Pete, and yes, I was also wondering about the continuity issues from Richard II (your review of which I also really enjoyed) as there will be a through line from the Henry IVs into Henry V in Tom Hiddleston at least. I also saw Tom Georgeson’s Bardolph in clips of the ‘to the breach’ episode in the Jeremy Irons documentary about the Henrys last week. I’d be interested to know whether it was primarily conceptual or logistical to compile two different casts (issues of space dictated that I wasn’t able to mention the changes in casting, though I did think about it. But it was a can of worms too far for the review).

    You’d probably know more about this than me as a history play performance specialist but I wonder how much of a theatrical tradition there is, when doing the second tetralogy, of having Richard II as a stand-alone (and if so, why?) They did in the ‘This England’ season at the RSC in 2000, but didn’t in the 2006-07 history cycle. I can understand them not casting Rory Kinnear in the Henry IVs as he’s meant to be older, though at the end of Richard II Bolingbroke talks about his dissolute son’s lifestyle. Not sure why they didn’t therefore have Jeremy Irons play Bolingbroke if continuity was an issue, or make Kinnear up to look older (which they might have been loathe to do, though they did it with Shallow). But the Northumberland issue is where all this speculation falls down. In short, I don’t know, but I do think you’re right that the series seems to be divided in two, or, rather, two worlds are presented, one of which is found in Richard II and one of which makes up the rest. I’ll be interested to see what they do with Henry V and to hear what you make of it.

  • Pete_Orford

    Great review, Will. I agree that the decision to play this part as less comic felt like the cast and crew were denying themselves the full potential of the play, but equally what was presented was coherent and well done. I agree with previous comments that Hal seemed to be aloof from the Eastcheap crew from the start, rather than having a genuine fondness for them, all of which makes the banishment of Falstaff as a foregone conclusion rather than a big surprise.

    Incidentally, there is one point I’m getting confused by in all of this – is The Hollow Crown supposed to be a series, or four individual plays? While I can appreciate the decision not to cast the same actors for Bolingbroke and Northumberland in recognition of the characters being older in this part than last week, I thought there might be a flashback, or even a “previously, in hollow crown” (which incidentally, I note DID appear at the beginning of Henry IV Part Two). Moreover, Iron’s portrayal of Henry showed little in common with Kinnear’s Bolingbroke, nor did the Northumberland of David Morrisey and Alun Armstrong. Richard II therefore seems to sit outside the series so far – there’s a strong chance that Falstaff will be seen in Henry V, in which case the final three plays will have a closer integration than the four as a unit.

  • Natasha

    I did wonder if Hiddleston was intentionally deploying a false laugh — ie its fakery underlining how he’s faking it in Eastcheap — but I think Humphrey is right that the comic elements were fatally undercooked. Still, it’s a tad unfair to judge a film adaptation of Shakespeare by (fully) theatrical standards. ‘Tis a different kind of beast altogether

  • Humphrey

    I thought everything was marvellous – particularly Irons and Hotspur – except for the most confusing, unfunny and somewhat disturbing (all intentional choices the director made, I think) Hal & Falstaff duo I have ever seen; Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff – legendary actor he may be – was nowhere near fat enough and he lacked that quality which in my mind is the strongest of his character: a great guffawing laugh shaking his massive belly, a laugh which is irresistibly contagious. And Hal… was cool for all the serious stuff… the showdown with Hotspur is always a winner… but never once did I see true mirth invoked by his fat jolly friend, true laughter from Tom Hiddleston the man and not Tom Hiddleston actor extraordinaire. Perhaps it was the lack of extras / real audience which prevented the comic elements from being achieved quite as brilliantly as the rest. Otherwise, sure, it was great fun.

    The ‘Falstaff-but-serious Experiment’ was intriguing but perhaps a little out of sync with the classic style so prevalent – and masterfully done – throughout the rest of the production.

  • Deirdre Kincaid

    I’ve just been in a production of this myself, so I may be biased, but – oh, dear.  Text hacked about, what there was left of it often unbearably slow, with thousands of extras doing cliche Historical London-type things to distract from it.  You would never guess that quite a lot of this play is meant to be funny.  I gave up after the play scene, in which no one seemed to know what the rhythm should be, or what lines were important.

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