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July 08, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV @ BBC

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The second episode in the BBC's Hollow Crown series offers a stand-alone, prudently cut version of Henry IV Part 1, and immediately it is clear that the central plays of the second tetralogy are in good hands with Richard Eyre. One of my complaints in my review of Rupert Goold's Richard II was that production's rather 'clean' medieval world, which couldn't quite shake the studio-set feel for much of its length and seemed surprisingly sparsely populated. Eyre's film, conversely, begins in an Eastcheap filled to bursting with prostitutes, drunks, servants, shopkeepers and beggars, richly detailed and thoroughly evocative. The sprawling Boar's Head Tavern establishes this play a world away from the crisp backgrounds of Richard II, with a lived-in world providing genuine depth and colour to the central plot.

The visual quotation of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight is apparent throughout, from Jeremy Irons's Henry's central raised dais to the nooks and crannies of the inn, to the arrangement of bodies for the play extempore. Yet Eyre's use of the film is homage rather than plagiarism, drawing on what makes Welles's film so evocative (the bustle and neat characterisation) but creating something distinctive.

Key to this is a quite exceptional cast, headed up by Tom Hiddleston's Hal. Striding through the Board's Head as if bathed in a constant halo, Hiddleston exudes easy charm and handsome cool, taller than almost everyone else by a head and wearing a leather jacket a cut finer than anyone else's. His willingness to be part of this world - playing football with passing children, winking at prostitutes - is constantly undercut by his clear distinction from everyone else, even the slightly unshaven and grinning Poins. Beautifully, his "I know you all" soliloquy is spoken in voiceover as he walks through the tavern away from his friend, nodding and smiling at the patrons while sad eyes reflect his thoughts.

He appears in direct contrast to Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff. Beale is an inspired and unique choice. Shorter than most of his companions, and effete in his manners, Beale plays Falstaff with an earnest and ingratiating insecurity, his confidence alternating with moments of nervousness. The play extempore is suggested with some desperation as Falstaff notes Hal's pained reaction to the news of Worcester's flight; as the young Prince rubs his forehead and begins falling back towards a resumption of his responsibility, Falstaff pulls at his elbow and pleads for a play, attempting to cling onto the Prince a little longer. The play is uproarious and beautifully entertaining, with lively crowd responses and Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly toing and froing. Hiddleston and Beale have a whale of a time impersonating Irons and Hiddleston respectively; Hiddleston apes Irons's distinctive accent, and is trumped by Beale affecting a poncey version of Hiddleston's swagger. Yet as Falstaff concludes his defence, he drops his accent and swagger, and the little man looks up at his Prince with appealing eyes, begging for acceptance. Crucially, Hal pauses for a long time and then, finally, averts his eyes in shame as he admits "I do. I will". Played as an admission rather than an attack, Eyre's versions of the characters are set apart as affectionate and emotionally tied. This is a Falstaff that we are prepared, from very early on, to see wounded.

The detail of the tavern scenes is delicious, with bowling, dancing and drinking happening in corners. Hal's mockery of Hotspur's valiance is played out in a corner as a sideshow while Falstaff enters; the impression is of a full environment which we only follow parts of. Characters emerge in tiny points: Mistress Quickly nervously running back and forth from the door; Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet entering into a pre-practised routine with Hal for winding up the sheriff by sitting astride him and shoving his hand up her skirts, and then later passing Falstaff's bill to him with the clear implication of her inability to read (to Hal's sympathetic gaze); and the always exceptional John Heffernan as a gurning and nodding Francis, achingly moving in a cruel instant as Poins and Hal roared with laughter in his face at a final "Anon, anon sir".

In contrast, the court scenes are deeply formal and played as high drama. Irons draws on Falstaff's reference to the king as a lion, constantly coiled or springing from his throne to pace his chamber and snarl in his underlings' faces. He is a deeply troubled king - although the film opens in Eastcheap, the scene is interspersed with Henry receiving reports of war and musing on his son, presenting Eastcheap almost as the nightmarish realisation of his fears regarding Hal. His choler is quick to rise, but he is not entirely in control. Confronting David Hayman's Worcester on the battlefield, Henry is overcome and forced to stagger to the side and vomit while Hal steps up to deliver his own challenge. The dynamic between the two is visceral; in their first meeting, Hal wears an informal cap and stands with a half smile on his face; until Henry dashes away the hat and, following a smirk on "I shall be more myself", slaps his son hard across the face. It is this point of violence that brings Hal to a realisation of the severity of his father's disappointment, causing him to ascent to the dais in protestation of his own worth.

Henry is similarly violent with the Northerners, played here with Northumbrian accents. Alun Armstrong is a background presence as Northumberland, but Hayman seethes with malice as a forward Worcester, stepping forward and shouting at his king very quickly with entirely inappropriate rage, causing his immediate banishment. Both men are overshadowed, however, by a fine and nunaced performance by Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. Hotspur is, here, almost entirely without guile, building into a full-blooded rant as he describes the fop who demanded his prisoners, much to Henry's amusement. It is only, however, as Henry notices him exchange a non-too-subtle glance with his father, intended to be private, that he snarls defiance at the young man. Hotspur's rage bursts out in defiance before the doors of the hall have even closed behind him, to Henry's clear consternation. The subsequent scene between the three Northern relations, played in a splendid corridor, is one of the most gripping sections of the film, as they attempt to keep Hotspur quiet and their conversation concealed from the surrounding guards, ending up making a whispered agreement in an alcove.

The younger Armstrong continues to be impressive throughout, initially in a complex scene with Michelle Dockery's Kate that presents the couple as deeply in love yet bound by abuse; he troublingly covers her mouth, pushes her violently to the bed and talks down to her, yet she presents a formidable match and refuses to bow to him. The sense of an unequal relationship is stressed further in the appearance of a servant who openly sneaks peeks at Kate's naked back while she puts on a dressing gown, unchecked by Hotspur; the evenness of their relationship is qualified by a sense of Kate's objectification. Their united front is shown more clearly in the Welsh singing scene, as while the rest close their eyes and listen to Alex Clatworthy's beautiful song, the two begin groping each other and sneak off giggling to conduct their own farewell. In the final duel with Hal, Hotspur has the better of the battle throughout, but takes too much vaunting pleasure in anticipation of his victory, taking time to raise his sword to finish him and allowing Hal to thrust a dagger into his side.

If the film has a real weakness, it is one of sentiment. Falstaff's 'honour' soliloquy is played as a rather melancholy voiceover as Falstaff wanders through the battlefield preparations, stumbling and sad. It is an evocative reading but robs the speech of all its humour. The music acts as too much of a pointer, signposting with a heavy-handed lack of ambiguity when the audience is meant to really start listening to the words and ensuring that nothing is missed. Better are the battle scenes, cleverly shot to make the most of the television budget and giving a surprisingly impressive sense of scale; but also demonstrating the brutality of war commented on by Falstaff, as men pummel each other in the mud and grind weapons into faces.

As the film draws to its close, the shift in allegiances is clear; a wounded Hal is escorted through a field littered wth bodies by his brother, on whom he leans strongly, walking away from Falstaff, who shrugs with an indication of wounded pride. Yet the two brothers look aghast at their father as he stumbles over his closing lines, clearly in pain and already fading (another nod to Welles). A burning battlefield, a sober Falstaff (who mourns the loss of his bottle when Hal angrily smashes it in the middle of the battle) and a Prince beginning to realise the weight of his own participation in state affairs - it's not a groundbreaking rendition of the play, but a richly detailed, beautifully presented and intelligently performed one. One only hopes that Part II can live up to it.

February 29, 2008

Henry IV Part I @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Before all else, a hugely pleasant surprise – it was good! Not just good, but great! My main problems with this production that last time I saw it were that it was slow and boring, and that the relationship between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and David Warner’s Falstaff was static. Happily, both issues have been resolved.

  • Running shorter than three hours, the performance was fast and thoroughly entertaining, and Streatfeild in particular was on absolute fire, revelling in his role as the joyful prince. The relationship with Falstaff was made infinitely more interesting by him genuinely seeming to like the knight this time, as well as enjoying the dissolute life, and the call of the court interrupted this.
  • Hal developed into the heroic prince throughout the play, particularly affected by his father’s belief that he had no love for him, which upset Hal deeply. Here, it really felt that something was at stake for Hal, and his climactic showdown with Hotspur was its culmination.
  • Lex Shrapnel was again superb as Hotspur, milking his scenes for all they were worth and being very funny. He was a very likeable anti-hero, a comic and real figure who called a spade a spade. His dying speech in particular was well-delivered, falling onto his belly and gazing in astonishment at his killer.
  • I really enjoyed Falstaff. David Warner struck a considered balance between gravitas and ridiculousness which lent the knight a kind of dignity. He was at his funniest when sitting in his chair quietly considering how to get himself out of whichever scrape he was in at the time. The subtleties of the performance really came through, and I am very pleased to be proved wrong after not enjoying earlier performances.
  • Clive Wood was brilliantly menacing in his first scene. I loved the confrontation between him and Hotspur, which culminated in him marching towards the youth. As he reached him Hotspur started to leap to his feet but in a sudden mood Henry shoved him back down. It was a powerful reassertion of power and a moment of real tension as Hotspur’s fist automatically clenched. The tension was only relieved as Henry wagged a finger and tutted at his behaviour. Hotspur’s subsequent ranting and demolition of the council chamber seemed to come from this moment of restraint.
  • It was great to see Julius D’Silva back in action as Bardolph. From his first appearance running for a rope, missing his grasp and plummeting to the ground with a “Shit!” to his futile attempts to climb another rope in time to hide from the party they were robbing (who watched in confusion until he gave up, said “Bollocks” and drew his gun), he and his red nose were a pleasure.
  • Matt Costain as Cutter, plummeting at unbelievable pace down a rope from the flies to inches above the ground. Enough said.
  • The many nobles can seem a background to the main characters, but there were some excellent performances among the armour. Miles Richardson has a tremendous voice, and his performance as Walter Blunt brought a sense of valour and honour to the fighting. He and the Douglas (Paul Hamilton) circling each other among lines of soldiers swinging swords in slow motion was a beautiful image. Hamilton was also a figure of strength as Douglas, with broadsword slung over his back and a grittiness next to Hotspur’s vaunting. I also think Tom Hodgkins made an intimidating Westmoreland, coming across as a strong military man.
  • Vernon (Luke Neal) was very strong, and the moment as the King paused as Worcester was dragged off, looked at the bloodied Vernon, left a beat and added “And Vernon too” was a moving one, seeing this honourable man taken to his death.
  • The Eastcheap scenes were well done, lively and funny. Maureen Beattie held court with an excellent comic performance as Mistress Quickly, and with Streatfeild helping keep up the energy the two of them really seemed to lead these scenes, allowing Warner’s Falstaff to recline and do his good work. A special mention to Kieran Hill too, who worked his socks off as Poins and was very entertaining.
  • Keith Dunphy was an adequate Mortimer, but nearly gave me a heart attack with a Pythonesque “Run away! Run away!” as a Gadshill pilgrim that was utterly hysterical. Sianed Jones as Lady Mortimer sang beautifully, and their relationship was tender and moving, with Roger Watkins’ Glendower acting the father and translating for them.
  • In a very nice touch, Falstaff’s band of ragamuffins were now a section of the audience (the one where I was sitting) who were made to stand to attention as he prepared to march to war. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but a really good one that broke up a quiet patch.

I laughed a lot during this performance, but was also impressed by the more serious performances. The dynamic between Hotspur and Hal seemed to drive the production, and Falstaff felt integrated in a way I hadn’t felt before. It goes to show how much a production changes during a run, and I’m very pleased to have seen it again.

August 04, 2007

Henry IV Part I @ The Courtyard Theatre

The disappointment is crushing. It was perhaps too much to hope that every play in the Histories Cycle would be a cracker, but after five excellent productions (even Richard III, which I wasn’t too fussed about at the time, has left a positive impression on me), Michael Boyd has finally dropped the ball.

That said, if it wasn’t for the fact that the rest of the cycle has been so good, I might not have cared. This isn’t a bad production, merely a very disappointing one which has missed its potential. Let down by a couple of key performances and, most crucially, missing the humour which goes a long way towards making this one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished pieces of work, it is the first of the Histories Cycle that has felt like a chore to sit through.

It is in large part due to the cast. No one member of the cast is in any more than seven plays, and for many of my favourite performers this is the show they miss- Jonathan Slinger, Forbes Masson, Katy Stephens, Chuk Iwuji, James Tucker, Richard Cordery and Nicholas Asbury are all on the reserves bench for this production. This is partly compensated for by the welcome return of Julius D’Silva, absent in Richard II but back now as Bardolph in a very funny performance, including a headlong dive from the balcony on his first appearance and a pitiful attempt at rope-climbing prior to the Gadshill robbery. He’s an excellent performer who has provided wonderful turns all through the cycle, and he clearly revels in his Cockney drunkard.

Clive Wood (Henry IV)

Where the play suffered was in its leads. David Warner’s Falstaff, much-hyped, is an odd piece of casting, Warner clearly a tall thin man wearing a fatsuit. He brings gravitas and a wonderful facility with language to the role, but he simply isn’t funny. What laughs there were were either entirely at Shakespeare’s words or else at bits of ‘business’- for instance, Falstaff donning a pair of false glasses and moustache as a disguise. Warner himself, however, was distinctly unfunny in the role, instead being listless and far less important to the story than he should by rights be. His intrusions onto the stage were more of an annoyance than a relief, and he threw away some of the best lines, particularly in his famous catechism on honour.

He wasn’t helped by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal. The oiliness and slick smoothness that made his Suffolk such an enjoyable and slimy villain in Henry VI was unwisely retained here. Streatfeild’s Hal was a smooth and humourless operator who, most bizarrely, never seemed to have the remotest liking or affection for Falstaff. From the moment they woke up in bed together to Hal’s evident disgust, to the battlefield where, of all things, he almost gloated at Falstaff’s dead body, there was never any doubt in the audience’s mind that this was a prince who was killing time in the tavern and was more than ready to take his place at the court. Falstaff was not a father figure, but an annoyance, someone he had to put up with while he had a drink, more like the lecherous old man in the pub who you end up talking to against your will. The only person Hal seemed to have any affection for was Poins, played by Kieran Hill, who did at least bring an energy and comedy to the tavern scenes. Every scene was played seriously, even the play extempore, where Hal seemed more angry than amused. His “I do; I will” was no surprise and not even a change in tone. Streatfeild is a good actor, and I can only hope that the next two productions justify his Hal, as here he was utterly unlikable in a way that left me uninterested in his rise. The interview between he and his father was excellent, really giving Hal the opportunity to realise his faults- and yet, the scenes earlier were so serious that we already knew the outcome. There is no redemption if the subject does not need to be redeemed.

David Warner (Falstaff)

The bright light was provided by Lex Shrapnel’s Hotspur. Shrapnel provided an energetic and thoroughly enjoyable performance, ranging from blustering to intimate in his scenes with Kate. Here was a hero we could engage with, and his death at Hal’s hands was a blow to the audience, particularly as the simultaneous stabbing of Falstaff (with fake blood flying across the stage) distracted from the actual moment.

The play was best in its small moments. Maureen Beattie provided a decent Scottish Mistress Quickly, Hal and his father shared some intimate moments on the battlefield and Prince John was set up nicely as a figure to watch. The battle scenes were well done, and the pistol showdown between Walter Blunt and the Douglas was particularly well done. However, the play as a whole became tiresome. The tavern scenes were not funny, and the serious scenes were too inconsistent. The result was a mess, with the feel of a production that hadn’t settled into itself yet. This was also the first play in which ghosts played no significant role (a real shame, as the ghost of Richard II would have had a great deal to do here), and few of the clever links that have characterised Boyd’s cycle so far. Coming so soon after the decent Richard II , this production was a crying shame.

Finally, I understand Boyd’s vision that there are no ‘good’ characters in this history, as everyone commits crimes. But this Hal simply needed a good, hard kick in the head- and if I’m going to be feeling that for the remainder of the character’s life, then I have to admit I’m slightly dreading the next two plays. I don’t want to like him, I just want to be able to watch him. Richard Twyman, the associate director, takes lead directing duties for Part II, and hopefully he’ll be able to get the cycle back on track.

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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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