All entries for Saturday 14 July 2012

July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91qj

Part Three of the BBC's Hollow Crown series, again directed by Richard Eyre, concludes the Henry IV plays. Once again it is a lavish, visually rich, sensitively acted interpretation, with a great deal to recommend it. But where 1 Henry IV was full of life, variety, powerhouse acting and intelligent use of televisual conventions, 2 Henry IV is quite frankly very, very dull.

It's not the fault of any of the performers. Tom Hiddleston is melancholy and brooding as an increasingly conflicted Hal; Simon Russell Beale is moving as the wounded, desperate Falstaff; and the rest of the company are uniformly game in following Eyre's interpretation. The difficult with this version is that everyone seems depressed. All humour has been stripped out of the scenes, replaced by sentimental music and the overwhelming sense of age and decrepitude approaching. Yet even Chimes at Midnight, which popularised this as a reading of the Henry IV plays, had some fun along the way. Considering that so much of Henry IV is funny - Hal and Poins disguised as servants (cut), Shallow and Silence providing country nostalgia (here located in a frozen, wintry setting), the recruitment of the soldiers, the bickering between Falstaff and the Justice - Eyre seems determined to wrench Meaning from every glance, a tear from every encounter. In this world, everyone knows what is coming and is not looking forward to a world of change.

The recruitment scene is a case in point. It's very difficult not to play this as comedy, and there are clear attempts to draw a laugh as the reluctant soldiers push each other, bark loudly or are simply cast very small (Wart). But the scene is so quiet and sober that the laughs simply don't come across. Instead, the climax is Feeble stepping forward to be pricked, making a stand for stoic acceptance while violins begin stirring underneath. The point is made - that there is nobility in the pathetic attempts of the amateur soldier to find courage. But the lack of comedic contrast deprives it of its force, and instead the scene seems simply to be attempting to get to this point.

Similarly, Eastcheap is tainted throughout by sadness. The opening arrest of Falstaff by Julie Walters's excellent Mistress Quickly begins promisingly, with two amusing constables attempting to draw sword and Falstaff defending himself, while Tom Georgeson's Bardolph flaps and Quickly hangs on Falstaff's shoulder, finally pulling them all down into the mud. But as Geoffrey Palmer's austere Lord Chief Justice demands to know the cause, the scene becomes all sincerity, with Quickly genuinely pleading and Falstaff defending himself, before talking her back into his grace. Beale's Falstaff is wonderful at suggesting the desperate sadness that underpins a man who knows he is far past his prime, but he lacks the sparkle of wit that makes his manipulation of the hostess so sharp. His liaison with Maxine Peake's relatively lively Doll Tearsheet sees her rolling on top of him, but he quickly getting to a point of tiredness, murmuring "I'm old" as she rolls off him, leaving even this scene in a mood of morbid reflection. Hal and Poins, listening above, burst through the ceiling and thoroughly castigate the old man before marching out in anger, leaving Falstaff and the two women sat sorrowfully on the bed. There is no banter, no engagement, nothing to come down from - it is as if Falstaff's rejection hda already occurred, and the two hours of this film is merely playing out an already established fact.

The mood is, of course, not entirely inappropriate to the whole of the play. Jeremy Irons is, once again, riveting as the fading King. In an early scene, he rolls dice compulsively as he tells his sons to make peace with their brother, playing out his anxiety in a telling gesture. The highlight of the film is his midnight stroll around the castle, walking past silent guards and speaking his troubles out loud, before grandly opening the doors to the throne room and announcing "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". His illness is apparent throughout, and he enters convulsions immediately after the report of John's victory is received. As he moves towards his end, his reconciliation with Hal is deeply felt and moving as he finally succumbs and falls into his son's arms.

Hiddleston's admirers are served by a faintly homoerotic first appearance in a bathing room, as he and Poins (David Dawson) lounge in towels and receive Bardolph. Yet from the start, there is no fun left in Hal, no relapse into enjoyment of prodigality. He tells Poins in all sincerity of his sadness for his father, and after taking the crown from his father's bedside he moves to the throne, sits in it and weeps openly. Elsewhere, everything is tears. Alun Armstrong's Northumberland weeps next to a lake. The three younger sons of Henry stand heads bowed before the Lord Chief Justice. The rebels accept their defeat in a mood of initial shock but ultimate acceptance. And the "chimes at midnight" moment sees Falstaff gazing into the middle distance of his own mortality, while even Shallow doesn't see the humour in the memories he evokes.

A bit of life is found in a kinetic chase scene as horsemen track down the fleeing soldiers who make up the remanants of the rebels, cutting them down along the way and sending Dominic Rowan's Coleville rolling down a bank into the sword of the straggling Falstaff. Henry Faber offers a sincere and earnest John, who takes great pains to convince the rebels first before James Laurenson's Westmoreland delivers the crushing order in a tent as soldiers surround the rebels. This breath of fresh air helps alleviate the monotony of tone, albeit even the normally amusing capture of Coleville is played dead straight.

The scourging of Eastcheap is intercut with Falstaff's disgrace, the women pullled away by their hair, and again the jokes omitted. Paul Ritter's Pistol is poorly served throughout by heavily cut scenes and a refusal to allow him to dominate the scene in the way the early records suggest, rendering his scenes relatively without impact, though he puts up a spirited fight in the final scene as the soldiers press in. However, the turning away of Falstaff is quite wonderful. Falstaff pushes through the crowds and past the soldiers creating a corridor to stand centrally with Hal. Hiddleston is utterly straight-faced, speaking down at the tiny knight and whispering harshly to him before raising his voice to ensure all the onlookers get the benefit of his renouncement. Yet it is Beale who shines here. He desperately tries to retain some hope, preparing a joke which is quashed before he opens his mouth, and ends the interview weeping openly before staggering away, leaning heavily on a cane, and finally being picked up by a rush of guards. The scene - and film - closes on Falstaff as he is dragged out into the open, the time slowing to a halt as Falstaff's face freezes in a look of utter sorrow.

Eyre's refusal to find variety or humour in the film works to its detriment. While the film does its essential job - demonstrate the mechanisms by which Hal casts off his fellows and becomes a sober king - the journey feels as if it has already been completed, and instead these are the final tickings of Falstaff's life, the slow drawing out of an inevitable conclusion. Beautifully shot and well performed, and often deeply moving (especially Beale) - but it's not enough to perform this play at one note.


King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/king-john/

The RSC's King John is playing in rep with Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs as part of the "Nations at War" strand of this season's work. It's a fascinating notional concept, but one thing that Maria Aberg's fresh reimagining of King John didn't emphasise was a sense of war. This was the most domestic take on the play I've yet seen, a rich and inventive study of a key central relationship around which infighting and politicking provided background colour. A nation may have been at war, but surprisingly, this John seemed to be more concerned with love.

Although the setting was not pinned down precisely, the legwarmers, neon shirts and music located John broadly in the '80s, painting a deliberately unflattering portrait of English popular entertainment. The kinds of behaviours that might, for lack of a better phrase, be popularly associated with a working-class Friday night out were here the default mode of the 'nobility': karaoke, miniskirts and cheap booze combined to suggest a society living for the weekend, oblivious to external pressures and ultimately torn apart when those pressures became unavoidable. It's a typical appropriation of this particular period, but more usually explicitly associated with the Falklands, Thatcherism and strikes, the messy and cruel realities which the era developed increasingly committed ways of avoiding. Here, though, specific political resonances were avoided, with the production instead concentrating on the mindset of avoidance, the surrender to crude pleasure that could only be momentary.

This was clearest in the scene which will undoubtedly maintain the production in some semblance of notoriety, and which reportedly caused walkouts on other nights. As Natalie Klamar's Blanche and Oliver Pearce's Dauphin prepared for marriage, she changed into fairy skirt and platform boots, he into a light lounge suit. The guests arrived in hideously 'fab' costumes, and the wedding played out as the crassest form of Albert Square party. The two kings kicked off the karaoke party, which quickly developed into a full-cast rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" before segueing into the theme from Dirty Dancing, to which the married couple danced the full routine. The audience appeared to be divided between those in helpless hysterics and those sitting absolutely stoney-faced. It was a bravura performance and, from my point of view, thoroughly enjoyable; its indulgence was the point. As Susie Trayling's immaculate Constance finally crashed the party, sitting on the floor looking with derision at John Stahl's topless French King and the stag party rejects that followed Lewis, the point that the recourse to marriage and celebration failed to address the serious political issues at stake was finely made.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was a production that, through drastic reinvention, kept uncovering aspects of the text often concealed in more straightforward productions. The war scenes of the closing acts were conflated into a series of voices spoken from around the galleries: the encounter with Melun, Chatillon's interview with Lewis about the drowning of the French troops, and the Bastard hearing the news of John's poisoning were cut across each other, creating a mosaic of voices that deprioritised the political events in favour of retelling the story from John's point of view. With Alex Waldmann's John staggering on stage, the war played out as fragmented reports and motionless noises, the loss of men reduced to a meaningless number. As the voices built to a climax and John's staggering reached its peak, the lights suddenly went up and music sounded. Waldmann broke into a desperate and committed dance, throwing himself into pure movement which, as it went on, began gradually breaking down into coughs and choking. He staggered on for a while until he finally collapsed on the steps of the stage, slowly dying. John's hedonism and avoidance were brought into a single climactic moment of realisation, another extraordinary performative moment that summed up the character's journey in a kinetic and deeply moving sequence. The textual justification came in the young Prince's plaintive "'Tis strange that death should sing", here tying this peculiar detail to the character's overall arc.

Waldmann was a young and reckless king, openly sexual in his behaviour (including slapping his mother's backside) and entering a rhetorical relationship of love with the Bastard, who he held closely throughout. He was most at home joking in front of the Faulconbridges or leading the wedding celebrations that ended in debauchery. After delivering his speech to the besieged city via a standing microphone, he punched the air in celebration for the benefit of his cheering supporters. Dynamic and charismatic, he was not the John familiar from history but yet this king made sense. His weaknesses were those of youth, of thinking before speaking and of reacting with his mouth rather than his head. This pushed Siobhan Redmond's poised and elegant Elinor into the background, she enjoying the public flirtation with her son but politically operating more as a force of support than a leader. John was active in war and peace, and quick to crack a joke, even after the parodic ritual re-communication by Paola Dionisotti's Pandulph, played to Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music, when he jumped up and immediately began ignoring the cardinal.

Dionisotti was a powerful presence, with pursed lips and a slight smile that belied her confidence in her authority. Striding around the stage in sunglasses and trouser suit, Pandulph was a force not to be taken lightly, but who was finally sidelined in the Dauphin's rants. As the only really 'external' character, Pandulph was a reminder of what the other characters were overlooking in their selfish and inward-focused pursuits; she was the representation of consequence.

The boldest decision was the casting of Pippa Nixon as the Bastard, a role greatly expanded by conflation with Hubert. The role thus became even more of a co-lead, and the play was oriented around their relationship. In stocking and short dress, Nixon was a dynamic presence throughout. Lively and anarchic, always sitting or standing outside of the formal patterns, she riled everyone around her (particularly Mark Jax's astounded Austria). Her gender lent extraordinary resonance to the play's constant talk of love. Early on, she opened her hoodie and placed a hand on her upper chest, deliberately distracting John while her brother put forward his case. As the play progressed, the two entered a relationship that was deeply tactile but never reduced to mere sex; John was utterly dependent on the Bastard, holding her and staring deep into her eyes as he placed his love and trust in her, and she recapitulated her devotion to him. John was the Bastard's connection to the playworld, for she spent most of the first half talking to the audience. The other actors would freeze for her soliloquies, and she fully inhabited the Lord of Misrule role by taking over and narrating or undercutting the action. Yet John captured all her attention, and provided the focus that drew her further into events.

The commission to murder Arthur was given in the heat of battle, as the bloody-armed Bastard met John in a spirit of high energy, and the snappy back and forth between the two spoke of two minds already in tune. Yet confronted with the child, the Bastard was finally forced to engage with someone other than John. Attempting to handcuff the child, but ending sprawled across the floor with him bound by his active pleading, Nixon captured in a physical and enervated way the struggle of conscience. The two practically wrestled, and Nixon's energy became rooted in a fixed point of the stage, turning inward into her own conflict. As she returned to John, the terrified energy of both - she at her failure to carry out his order, he at his penance for what he believed had taken place - was channelled into a deeply disturbing sequence as John, enraged and terrified, grabbed hold of the woman he 'loved' and proceeded to enact an abortive rape on her, wrenching at her breasts and pinning her to the floor as she sobbed in simultaneous pain and regret. Although he subsequently apologised, it was a disquieting insight into the darkest aspect of this king's compulsive behaviour - he needed to feel and consume, his drives geared towards destruction that would easily consume those around him also. His behaviours were simply unsustainable.

At its motif, the production continually revisited the notion of release. The second half began with the Bastard entering and belting out (not fantastically, but adequately) a solo number as John sat behind her, at the climax of which confetti cannons went off in the rafters and the background scenery - an enormous balloon cage - collapsed, sending beach-ball sized balloons around the auditorium which remained for the rest of the production, being kicked out of the way as the scowling English lords made their way around the stage. A steep staircase dominated the upstage area, down which Arthur gingerly made his way before jumping; a mirror actor stood at the top of the steps and threw themselves off and away from the audience as Arthur collapsed amid the balloons. And Pandulph's re-communion of John threw all the tricks of pageantry and austere music at the king in an effort to enforce submission.

The other performances were largely fine, with a young cast pulling out some great moments. Iain Batchelor was a nervy, preppy Robert Faulconbridge; Joshua Jenkins stood out as a youthful and keen Essex, taking on a Poins-like relationship with John; and Edmund Kingsley made a fine impression as Chatillon, wearing light pink lounge suit and addressing his superiors on both sides with a nervous formality. He drew some of the evening's biggest laughs when he returned to the French court with a plastic bag full of London souvenirs. Jax's Austria was a threatening presence, made all the more ridiculous when wearing a horned stag party hat, and the Dauphin was great fun in his superficial flirations and complaints. The group moments were less impressive, with the Chorus representing the people of Angiers far too choreographed and stylised to be compelling. In the play's quieter, more traditional moments, Trayling delivered a fine lament as Constance; however, to my mind, the production didn't show enough interest in these aspects. The problem with such a noisy production is that moments of quietness felt underprepared by comparison. Much of the play was actually quite slow, a slowness mitigated by the visual interest for most of the production but which came out to the production's detriment when the bag of tricks was temporarily withdrawn.

While the plot was sidelined (the nobles were almost indistinguishable from one another and the war story given very little attention), this was a clear and accessible King John. Ultimately, though, it was all about the central relationship. The climax to the penultimate scene saw the Bastard declaring her fortitude to hear John's sufferings with the words "I am no woman" repeated three times, setting up an emotional conclusion that saw the Bastard finally confront her human connection to John. The final scene was played with just John, Henry and the Bastard on stage, and John died in the Bastard's arms to her screams. It was a deeply moving conclusion that completed the Bastard's arc, showing her entirely exhausted by her devotion to John, she drawn in by his charisma and connection yet finally abandoned. This was not an easy King John, and no doubt one that will divide its audience, but the freshness and tight emotional focus of the production dug something genuinely new, yet entirely in the spirit of the play, from a too-neglected text.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
  • Very interesting and commendable, it'll be great to see some more of the plays given this attention.… by Peter Kirwan on this entry
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