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July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2

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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.

February 29, 2008

Henry IV Part II @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Contrary to the pleasant surprise of Part I, Henry IV Part II was actually less good than I remembered. I think this was mostly down to the long day – it’s a lot of Falstaff for one day. I also think the excellent meal and beer of the Dirty Duck probably didn’t help hugely. But a weak link is not necessarily a bad one, and there was much to love about this production.

  • Matt Costain’s interval routine as Davy, setting up the stage for Gloucestershire while juggling with folding chairs and hanging from ladders, was impeccably timed and very funny. The whole thing, from getting an audience member to prop his ladder back up to the bale of hay that plunged from the ceiling, narrowly missing him, was just hysterical.
  • Rob Carroll, a wonderful comic talent in workshops, gave one of my favourite performances of the cycle so far as Wart, scuttling crab-like across the stage and accidentally setting off a rifle. The rest of the recruits were good too, particularly Antony Shuster as a narcoleptic Shadow who fainted repeatedly and Katy Stephens as the nervy Feeble, who balanced the comedy with a hint of pathos as s/he faced down the terrors of war.
  • The key scene between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and Clive Wood’s Henry IV in the bedchamber, arguing over the crown, was powerful stuff. Henry’s desperation to see the kingdom in good hands became a personal struggle with his own insecurities as a father, shaking his son in desperation, hoping against hope that he would be a true prince. Hal’s own response felt similarly desperate as he tried to reassure his dying father of his faith.
  • Keith Bartlett provided the other excellent father as Northumberland, receiving the news of Hotspur’s death. Northumberland’s guilt, particularly as he heard Coleville’s reminders that he knew the risk into which Hotspur was going and went into a kind of fit. As grieving father, Bartlett was excellent.
  • Forbes Masson as Rumour, re-emerging in Bagot’s costume pulling the coffin of Richard II, looked like he had been dragging that coffin for days, as if his punishment for murder was his very own albatross. The effect of the doubling suggested that Bagot’s sin had pulled him out of the world into his own liminal space, where as Rumour he influenced the action while always being apart from it. This was particularly emphasised at the close of Act One with Henry left alone on stage as Jonathan Slinger’s ghost of Richard descended the steps towards him while Rumour looked on. After an earlier part largely free of ghosts, it was good to see the stories linking together again.
  • Doll Tearsheet and Pistol made their marks. Nicholas Asbury as the latter ranged around the stage with energy and enough bombast to lift the Courtyard, and was very funny. His knocking out by Julius D’Silva’s Bardolph with a bottle over the head was very fun. Alexia Healy was a confident and cocksure Doll who made herself at home in the tavern and brought a sexuality to her scenes that brought to life the bawdy humour.
  • Geoffrey Freshwater as Shallow was also very good, his cheeky laughter and rambling very funny. When he nodded and winked at Falstaff as he reminded him of the night they lay together, bouncing his knees up and down and laughing wickedly, Falstaff’s uncomfortable look away spoke volumes. Sandy Neilson was also very good as Silence, both in the early scenes with a sombre deadpan way of speaking that provided the perfect foil for Shallow, and later with his singing when drunk.
  • A late entrance was made by Patrice Naiambana as Warwick. The last actor to enter the octology, Naiambana’s uniquely powerful voice and intimidating presence made an immediate impression, hinting at a man who you absolutely wanted on your side. His presence in the King’s dying scenes was reassuring.
  • Luke Neal and Antony Shuster made good use of their short time onstage as Hal’s brothers Gloucester and Clarence, creating a brief image of sibling rivalry as Neal shouted at Hal and Shuster tried to make peace. The brother prize goes to Chris McGill though, a brooding John of Lancaster who handled the climax of the political story well. Tom Hodgkins also shone in these scenes as Westmoreland, the two a clever mix of devious cunning and impressive soldiership.
  • The Archbishop of York, played by Antony Bunsee, was another short part that demanded attention. Bunsee has a fascinating voice that handles rhythm well, and the Archbishop’s speeches as a result had a peculiar resonance that I found compelling.

Despite all the good about this production, it suffered from a dip in pace at times. In particular, the long tavern scene in the first half seemed to last an age, and the end felt a bit peculiar, as if someone had forgotten their lines or was waiting for a cue- there was a sudden slow in pace, before the sudden emergence of John and the Lord Chief Justice and the lowering of the cage that captured the Eastcheap mob. The production felt weaker, but the important scenes (including the casting off of Falstaff) retained their power and left the audience hanging on for the coming wars in France…..

August 16, 2007

Henry IV Part II @ The Courtyard Theatre

After the disappointment of Michael Boyd’s Henry IV Part I, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Richard Twyman’s Henry IV Part II is a joy to watch. Fast, funny, moving, integrated and with a unique character and flavour of its own, this production comes with a massive sigh of relief, rekindling my faith in the Histories Cycle.

So what’s changed? On the surface, not a great deal. Almost all of the company are involved in this production- only John Mackay and Roger Watkins are absent from this play. The set and costumes are the same as for the previous play, and we follow the same scenes. Yet somehow Twyman has pulled Part II back into a form that complements what has come before and what is still to come, creating a play that is a part of the cycle rather than a deviation from it – different, yet familiar and relevant.

Chief among the elements that set this above Part I are the performances. Special mentions tonight go to the criminally underused Rob Carroll as Wart, scuttling across the stage hunched up and accidentally letting off the rifle Bardolph gave him; Hannah Barrie in an almost non-speaking role but clearly having the time of her life as a lairy tavern wench; Matt Costain, revelling in an hysterical bit of physical comedy in the interval as he appropriated various ladders, bunting and deckchairs to keep the audience entertained as he set the stage for Gloucestershire; Geoffrey Freshwater as an hysterical Robert Shallow, infectious giggling and all; and Alexia Healy, who threw herself into her first major role of the cycle as Doll Tearsheet.

The change wasn’t only in the excellent supporting performances, but in the leads too. Where Hal was too severe in Part I, Falstaff too serious and the King too embittered to fit with the subject matter, here the text lent itself far better to their interpretations. David Warner’s peculiar brand of gravitas befitted Falstaff as he reclined in his armchair watching Pistol’s ranting, and also suited him in Gloucestershire as he sat courtly and bemused, letting his country fellows do their thing while raising an eyebrow quizzically. His relationship with Hal was also more comfortable, a kiss on the cheek being particularly telling as Hal said his final farewell to Falstaff before the latter headed off to war. Here, although still severe, Hal seemed to go on a genuine journey, being almost sucked back into the tavern world as he and Doll kissed on the ramp before running back to court. The final rejection was never in doubt, but Geoffrey Streatfeild managed to inject some more humanity into his prince, allowing us to feel the pain. The play closed with the two of them staring at each other through the bars of the cage that had been lowered over Falstaff.

Clive Wood made an early appearance for the first time this evening, standing on the balcony while Poins and Hal discussed the ailing King in their first scene. This made far more sense of Hal’s intensity, visually demonstrating the hold that the image of his father had over him and helping us to understand his rejection of Poins (who appeared on a balcony in the final scene, already at a distance from the king but still watching his rejection of others). The King’s presence infected the play, and his final scene with Hal was genuinely moving, the two lying on the floor together as father and son finally reconciled.

Ghosts, notably missing from Part I, made a welcome return here, with the ghost of Bagot opening the play, dragging in Richard’s coffin from which the dead king arose. Bagot then became Rumour, wandering the world of the play and bringing ill news, including the head of Northumberland. The ghost of Richard likewise appeared on a couple of occasions, hovering over both the Archbishop and the King, advancing on the latter at the close of Act One. Finally, in a future echo, the young Henry VI appeared to Hal as the Lord Chief Justice (Richard Cordery on solid form) besought the new king to consider the future of his children.

It wasn’t all perfect. Certain members of the cast were less than word-perfect, a footlight got smashed by Anthony Shuster as he left the stage and the rebels were frankly boring (though livened up by Chris McGill’s Prince John). Some of the acting wasn’t great either- Ann Ogbomo (Lady Percy), Keith Bartlett (Northumberland) and Antony Bunsee (Scroop), who have all excelled elsewhere, seemed less comfortable in their roles here, intoning their lines in a dull monotone. Bartlett did compensate though with a wonderful moment in the first scene where he entirely lost control, having to be restrained from hurting himself by his men.

This was a production which felt like part of a sequence. The references to events past and present, the re-used motifs and the intelligent performances brought the things we loved about the other plays back to the fore, but the play remained equally distinct in spirit- very funny scenes in Gloucester (an enormous bale of hay falling from the ceiling and barely hitting Davy being a highlight), an energetic tavern scene (Nicholas Asbury as Pistol deserves special mention for soldiering on even when tripping accidentally over a hatch and falling, not missing a word. He then tumbled convincingly through the trap doors after being smashed over the head by a bottle wielded by Bardolph!) and a surprisingly good impression of the sibling politics between the young princes, conjured effectively by Luke Neal, Antony Shuster and Geoffrey Streatfeild in mere seconds of stage time.

It’s anyone’s guess which direction the company will take Henry V in, but for now I’m just relieved that Henry IV has been vindicated. Where Part I disappointed, Part II made up for it in spades. I hope Richard Twyman, the young director given the chance to take over this one play while Michael Boyd does the other seven, gets the credit he deserves.

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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 on this entry
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