There are few occasions when American audiences listen to the national anthems of other countries. Anywhere the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball outside of that city plays both the American and Canadian anthem, and in the NHL that practice is much more common with more Canadian teams. My mind jumps to medal ceremonies at the Olymipcs as one of the only places to naturally encounter a foreign anthem or display of patriotism. It can be inspiring, but also a bit awkward to watch brazen displays of national pride without hope of truly understanding that history.
Henry V, as performed by a mostly British cast under British direction for a distinctly British cultural cause in The Hollow Crown, is about as close to performative patriotism as this play can get. It celebrates a medieval war hero who tragically died young, ending the highest peak of victory and internal peace in the Henriad, right before everything went dark for a while within the monarchy. The play is incredibly concerned with what it means to be English and the best, most desirable qualities ascribed to Englishmen. More than any other play in this history cycle, Henry V is the most concerned with national identity—and it’s an aspect of the play I can only sympathize with, not understand completely.
I am not a fan of beginning with the hero’s funeral to show how much he will be missed once he’s gone. It’s a bit too much of celebrating a special snowflake The unexpected death of Henry V begins Henry VI Part I, but it doesn’t really have any place here. The text already conveys just how much Henry will be missed, and his rise through The Hollow Crown shows how beloved by the people he becomes after throwing off his previous behavior to ascend the throne.
And I have to address the questionable adherence to the play’s many Chorus interruptions, the insistence on beginning each act with a prologue to function as transportation. The main thrust of those speeches remains inherent to theater performance: working with an audience to adjust their imagination due to production limitations. Though The Hollow Crown clearly is not a “spare no expense” endeavor, but still one with sizeable resources, their inclusion seemed like a decision that wasn’t tied down to any real purpose. The same goes for the final moment of the film, revealing John Hurt as Falstaff’s boy (at least that’s how I interpreted it) who suddenly breaks the fourth wall when all of the previous lines directly addressing the play as a play had been cut from the Chorus’ lines. It’s a moment that says, “Look, we got John Hurt too!”
This version of Henry V has two chief concerns. First, it must complete The Hollow Crown as a stylistically and thematically coherent series. Director Thea Sharrock mostly accomplishes that by completing the story of Sir John Falstaff, a lamentable and heartbroken end. Turned away by Henry, his friends in Eastcheap mourn his death as a sign that the Hal they knew is gone forever. Seen only for a brief few seconds, Simon Russell Beale doesn’t quite get the send-off he deserves, but he gets to linger, just like Robbie Coltrane, which leads me directly to the second and equally problematic aspect of this version of Henry V.
This verison has to contend with Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version of the film, regarded as one of the best—and most accessible—Shakespeare adaptations ever. I guess this is the point where I out myself as a very selective fan of Branagh’s work. Henry V enjoys a sterling reputation that neither the television movie filmmaking nor the overly self-important and bombastic lead performance merit. And his version of Hamlet—though admirably ambitious in staging literally every line possible—stems less from Branagh’s undying fealty to Shakespeare than it does from his self-superiority as a Shakespearean actor. His arrogance is his own undoing when trying to bring the Bard to a larger audience. Branagh’s two best performances are less glamorous (but still canonical) roles: as one half of the best Benedick/Beatrice ever put to film with his then-wife Emma Thompson, and as Iago in Oliver Parker’s Othello.
But at key points in the film, Sharrock makes very clear choices that deviate and improve stagings in Branagh’s adaptation. Cutting right to the most-quoted lines of the play, Henry delivers the infamous St. Crispin’s Day speech surrounded by a literal “happy few,” instead of cascading screams that Branagh roars to every last soldier in his version as he struts down the front line. Hiddleston’s Henry is vain and self-conscious, desperate to know the true feelings of his subjects, like many other performances, but he is also a more private and humble version of the king. He would not accept the helping hand of an extra to step up above the rest of his soldiers to boom inspiration at them, betraying his anti-celebrity attitude only a few scenes earlier. (I am aware my distaste for Branagh is showing, but I can’t help it when he oozes smugness.)
Some of this would be allayed if Hiddleston were anything close to the dominating Shakespearean actor he needs to be to carry the role as king. What has struck me most about his performance throughout The Hollow Crown is how well-suited he is to playing Prince Hal up through his father’s death in Henry IV Part II, and how that boyish vulnerability, knowingly burdened joy, and playfulness is exactly what makes him such a lackluster Henry V. He’s not incompetent. Far from it, he gives an admirable performance as the king, but not a transcendent one. He fits into a long line of talented British actors to take up the role but come up a hair shy of greatness. It’s hundreds of years old, which makes it very difficult to come up with something new. I imagine the only American equivalent would be something like playing George Washington, if there was a large canonical American drama series written about the revolution.
Hiddleston has been the only actor required to progress through a dramatically altered performance over the course of the series, and it’s ultimately not very surprising he pulled off one side of the transition better than the other. He doesn’t really get anyone else to play off of throughout Henry V—his best bet is the French herald—and that takes the play down a notch from the two parts of Henry IV, when he had Beale, or Jeremy Irons, or Joe Armstrong as a counterweight. Having said all that, I’d still put his Crispin’s Day speech up against Branagh’s favorably, both in the economy of staging and the restraint in performance. When the play hits the highs it really comes through, and the lack of distracting music cues also helps to feature the performances instead of leaning on other techniques to imbue the emotions the director wants the audience to feel.
As for my two favorite scenes in the play, that’s where Branagh has the most insurmountable advantage. I’m not sure there will ever be a better Princess Katharine than Emma Thompson, and the French scene from Act III is by far my favorite in Branagh’s version, the lasting impression of that film for me. And somehow Thompson was always able to take the puffed-up edge off Branagh’s performance in Act V, where the play shifts from war to negotiation and Henry has to trade rousing battlefield speeches for expert wooing. Here, it is again perfectly adequate, but lacking a significant spark. That’s basically how Henry V feels as the final installment. It has a few moments of deep, resonant emotion, but it can’t string together any momentum in Hiddleston’s performance or in the characters around him for much help. The final product is a competent and thoroughly entertaining war play with a watchable lead, but one that nonetheless rests in the shadow of more thoroughly surprising versions.
As a series, The Hollow Crown re-adapts and documents perhaps the most infamous dramatic account of British history (or the first half of a pair of tetrologies). But the essential ranking of the plays decreases as the frequency of performance increases. Richard II is by far the most revelatory and mandatory installment, since performance of the play in such a high quality is so rare. The remaining plays have been performed far more often (at least in the United States), and as such there are other ways to see the plays with less-famous actors but with more daring production choices that don’t feel beholden to a series-wide aesthetic.
If you’d like to see one actor play the same role through a long series of plays—though still significantly edited for time—then The Hollow Crown provides that with Irons, Hiddleston, and Beale as the Henrys and Falstaff. That uniformity is difficult to repeat. The bar for success was set quite high with the series, as Sam Mendes and the other principle creative clearly envisioned a new, definitive, coherently linked version of the plays. That was only half-achieved, but that still leaves quite a respectable accomplishment.
- Among the scenes cut from the play: the Southampton Plot; Fluellan, MacMorris, and Jamy at Agincourt; conversations in the French camp (many of the opposing side scenes throughout The Hollow Crown ended up not making the final cut); and the young boys guarding the English baggage train.
- Did the casting of the Duke of York create any kind of a stir? I would have liked more of the series to adopt that openness in casting, as most of the old guard British actors ended up the expected cavalcade of white guys.
- A simple ranking: Richard II, Henry IV Part II, Henry IV Part I, Henry V.
- Nice to see Richard Griffiths in his last television role.