There are a lot of options for where a production of Henry IV can place the focus of Part I. There’s the demonstrably strained father-son relationship, which King Henry curses in the play’s opening scene. Or Prince Hal’s inverse relationship to Harry Percy, the noble and honorable Earl of Northumberland who fights valiantly for the King, then becomes the play’s antagonist due to his youthful anger issues. Or perhaps the emphasis on Hal’s common humanity in Eastcheap, befriended by Sir John Falstaff, a disreputable knight and kindly yet conniving man always looking for his next flagon of sack.
It’s a bit of a strange quadrangle there, between Hal and his diametrically opposed father figures, and King Henry’s relationship to the son he wished was his and the one of whom he is ashamed. Strangely—but appropriate to the overarching goal of the series—The Hollow Crown is most concerned with the break in principles of Plantagenet succession when Henry IV usurped Richard II’s power and ascended the throne. It’s the least emphasized thread I’ve seen performed in any production, since it squeezes out the stronger comic and hero’s journey elements in favor of a colder, historical perspective.
That was my lingering impression after finishing this first part of Henry IV, which introduces Tom Hiddleston as the Prince of Wales, who will emerge as the larger protagonist as the series continues. Richard II blew me away; it was by far the best version of that play I’ve ever seen. Henry IV, Part I isn’t as definitive, but the production values are still top-notch, the acting from many familiar faces is still superb, and the many various themes contained within this slice of British mythic identity still pop up in bits and pieces. But this is a distracted version of the play, one that incorrectly chooses the larger, sprawling focus and tries to service every facet of the storylines while severely editing them down to a two-hour running time.
Richard II closes with a solemn declaration from Henry, that he must go to the Holy Land on pilgrimage in order to atone for the ghastly fate that befell Richard. As just as meaningfully, Henry IV Part 1 begins decades later, with the far older Henry (now played by Jeremy Irons) hearing word of the progress of civil war within his kingdom, his planned pilgrimage again put off until after settling the constant outbreaks of conflict. But when news of Edmund Mortimer (Harry Lloyd, best known to American audiences as Viserys Targaryan from Game Of Thrones) losing his entire battalion to Welsh rebels reaches the King, Henry presumes Mortimer lost intentionally, sacrificing many men and marrying the rebel leader’s daughter. Harry Percy vociferously demands Mortimer be ransomed home, since his wife (Michelle Dockery, in yet another thankless and ruthlessly edited female role in a Shakespearean history) is Mortimer’s sister.
It gets a bit unclear here whether Henry is simply upset at Mortimer’s marriage, or the historical point that Mortimer was Richard II’s chosen heir to succeed him. And it’s a problem that director Richard Eyre’s version doesn’t tip a hand either way to its choice of interpretation. But whatever the reasoning, Henry refuses, and demands the rebel prisoners Percy captured, which he refuses, storming out of court and conspiring with his family to steal away to the rebel camp and begin their own rebellion against Henry to restore the original royal line. That basically sets up the high plot, with Henry angry at some of his supposedly loyal subjects seeming to switch sides in civil war, Percy upset the King for what he views as the same kind of impulsive, selfish decisions Richard made that so angered the previous generation they supported Henry’s usurpation.
How these political machinations fester into yet another civil war forms the thrust of this adaptation. Percy is the son of Northumberland (played by Alun Armstrong here as the older version of the character David Morissey played in Richard II), the man most instrumental in putting Henry on the throne. It’s a bit petty for the same family to engineer Richard’s demise, and then turn on the new king. And it’s also against the spirit of loyalty and mercy that Henry showed toward his cousin at the end of Richard II to choose the vengeful punishment of refusing ransom.
But Part I never establishes that Henry has grown as unsuitable as Richard (at a more advanced age), nor strongly suggests that Northumberland and his family are simply fickle, politically mutable traitors who get fidgety whenever the spoils of war don’t fall in their favor. That lack of distinct perspective is disappointing, but not unexpected, since The Hollow Crown appears to have an air of historical equality, trying to present the plays in simple, dramatic fashion with stylistic harmony instead of individual artistic license from each of the three directors over their king’s reign.
But then there’s the lower plot, playing to all of us commoners (commenters?). Henry’s eldest son, Prince Hal, doesn’t appear at court, instead spending his time in an Eastcheap tavern with friends of ill repute. He descends from royal birth, instead choosing the path of “starting from the bottom” as it were (if you’ll pardon a stray Drake reference). To me, the most fascinating aspect in the history of performing Henry IV, Part I is how Prince Hal was initially an undesirable part. Historically, young actors of the day wanted to play Hotspur, who had fire in his belly and a grudge dating back to his family’s decision to back Bolingbroke in usurping the throne. But over time, mostly in the 20th century from what I can tell, the attention shifted to Prince Hal, the man who would be king, purposely designing his rise to glory as though clairvoyant to his future importance as a patriotic figure.
I’ve never seen a theatre company decide to stage a one-off production of Henry IV Part I without incorporating the other plays in some capacity, as part of one grand Henry IV depicting the king’s reign, or more commonly in modern theatre, as a trilogy depicting the rise of Prince Hal from uncouth disgrace to national war hero. All of this is a rather extended preamble to say that Prince Hal is one of the most coveted roles for any Shakespearean actor, since it typically means creating a changing performance that expands over the course of three plays. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have to contend with Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V here, and as the history of the role goes, he’s not as much of a towering important presence in this first of his three appearances in the Henriad. Hal’s importance to the play is his relationship to the other three key parts: King Henry, Harry Percy, and Sir John Falstaff. He only meets Percy at the end of the play when they clash swords, and his relationship with his father is carried out through commentary by many characters without the two meeting until Hal is summoned to court and promptly shifts on a dime to become a faithful soldier. Hiddleston even crosses himself in front of the throne as he does it, a benediction to his altered character.
Which brings me to Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s great comedic characters, unique since he’s tossed in the middle of a history. (I’d go with the Fool from King Lear as the other delightfully out-of-place comic character in the Bard’s work.) Simon Russell Beale is a legendary British stage actor specializing in Shakespearean performance—he really needs no introduction. He provides easily one of the best Falstaff’s I’ve ever seen, because Beale is so committed and so capable of delivering the Shakespearean dialogue as though he’d been born in Elizabethan times. But for the life of me I can’t figure out what was so enrapturing about his performance that netted him a BAFTA last year. As Falstaff, Beale plays a silly braggart and an exploitative rogue, but here he’s a spectacularly sad creation, which makes all of the goofiness harder to laugh at. I guess I should be crediting that I felt so repulsed by a character beloved as a needling manipulator.
The finest scene in this new staging pits Beale against Hiddleston in the Eastcheap tavern that houses the socially lower scenes of the play, as the two imagine for the assembled patrons what will happen when Hal is summoned to court by his father the king. Hal essentially cedes the floor to Falstaff to construct his selfishly optimistic version of events, first playing King Henry and musing about his latent fondness for Falstaff. Then Hal switches places, allowing Falstaff to write what he imagines should be Hal’s own speech to his father. And the irony of that setup—Falstaff’s prideful and lazy ambition to drink and slouch toward more unearned favor after Hal plainly states his intentions to the audience that he plans to leave Falstaff out in the cold—superbly clashes the comedy of the immediate with the foreboding tragedy of a severed friendship. Unfortunately, the play does not hold that compelling tone, forced by the colliding high and low plot to change character focus on a dime as the men head off to war.
If we’re to laugh at Falstaff, we laugh at a knight who squanders all of his (admittedly limited) potential, hangs his hopes of great future fortune on friendship with a future king who would be astronomically more corrupt than anything comparable to Richard II’s financial maneuvers. I used to think I liked my Falstaffs in the My Own Private Idaho vein, and reveling in Falstaff’s mistaken assumption that he struck the jackpot and took the future king under his wing. But after watching the character on stage more often, I like Falstaff as an unintentional comedian, proud as the day is long, but not looked down upon by the play as a scum-sucking weasel.
I’ve refrained from watching ahead on The Hollow Crown while writing about each of the plays, so right now I have no idea what Beale will become as Falstaff in Part II. But for now, I don’t believe the final note of Beale’s performance. He’s been a sad punching bag for the entire play, a pitiful figure instead of a wholly comedic one, so his affected reaction to the gore around him during the battle contradicts whatever middle-of-the-road intent Eyre had. Either Falstaff can play the foolish, penny-pinching coward in battle, bringing in ragged slaves and avoiding any physical contact at all cost, and his final “turn” can be a sarcastic joke, thumbing his nose at the idea of changing his ways. Or he can be truly altered by seeing the horrors of war, a truly fearful man who desperately wants to live—but won’t much longer thanks to his lifestyle—who at least for one moment endeavors to throw off his demons. Part 1 chooses both and neither, playing Falstaff’s appearance in battle for laughs, his ploy to pose as the man who slew Harry Percy as a joke Hal is too exhausted and changed to dispute, and then his dedication to change as halfheartedly serious.
But this is only one half of the play, and Eyre is the only one of these three directors who gets a second crack at the series with Part II. The film doesn’t project as much to come as the written end of Part One. Instead of the King’s assembled forces listing off the enemies still ensconced in their territories of Great Britain, Hal simply delivers a battle cry and the sense of victory mostly carries the play. But there is one exception: Irons’ performance betrays the beginning of King Henry’s declining health, and he’s clearly not all there in receiving the victorious news from his son.
So The Hollow Crown came back to earth a bit with this installment, since no one out of Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, or Simon Russell Beale delivers a knockout performance. This is an adaptation buoyed by the overall average strength of its cast and the commitment to luxurious production value. It hints at many of the more interesting themes of the play, and even delves into them in introductorily educational ways for anyone who has never seen or read the play. But it’s not quite the sumptuous effort I wanted it to be, despite my mostly positive feeling. I had unnaturally high hopes for each of these installments knocking it out of the park and firmly establishing a new and vital series of Shakespeare adaptations for the BBC. Now I sort of understand why the series was such a dramatic failure on BBC2 when they first aired.
- I know it was a bit controversial in Richard II, but the depiction of the mysterious and savage Welsh is much softer in Henry IV. Glendower isn’t some fearsome magician, he’s a bit of a foolish joke to the Englishmen uniting with him.
- Perfect encapsulation of Falstaff as a character, with Hal and his brother toward the end of the play: “This is the strangest tale that ever I heard.” “This is the strangest fellow, brother John.”
- I haven’t seen Chimes At Midnight since college, but I’m planning to watch it again before next week, so I’ll hopefully discuss it a bit when talking about the last history play in which Falstaff appears (though he’ll be mentioned by name in Henry V).
- Unfortunately I didn’t get to mention Julie Waters’ solid performance as Mistress Quickly, who turns out to be the most substantial female character in the play, going toe-to-toe with Falstaff and standing up to his callous insults.
- I had never seen Joe Armstrong before he played Hotspur here, but just browsing his credits, I like that he’s got a part in The Village, the British television import I’m most looking forward to eventually getting a stateside airdate.