Great Performances: The Hollow Crown – The Rest of the Henriad

Looking at the drafts folder today. Here’s one I wrote a month ago and thought I had published. If you’re my FB friend, you know I’ve been dealing with some big personal stuff. But all is well, and now I’m just dealing with holiday madness. Ho ho ho. So hopefully there will be more blogging in coming weeks.

I have finally caught up on the rest of the Great Performances production of the Henriad, the four plays from “Richard II” through “Henry V.”

As with “Richard II,” one huge advantage that these plays had was top-notch talent. Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/King Henry V, Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly, even the voice of John Hurt as The Chorus in “Henry V.” Every performer was stellar. I think I used that word before.

In some ways, these plays are perfect for a high school English class “compare and contrast” essay. They are all structured around parallels and opposites. I don’t know to what extent that was planned or accidental. Maybe having that kind of through-line helped Shakespeare keep it all straight as he was writing; maybe when he got to the end, he looked it over and went, “Huh. Look at that.” In any case, each play has its grand figures who are set up in similar position and yet in opposition to each other. Bolingbroke and Richard. Prince Hal and Hotspur. King Henry and Falstaff (as father figures to Hal). King Harry (Henry V) and the Dauphin. These contrasts form the central weight-bearing beams of each play.

In the Great Performances “Henry IV” plays, these oppositions were done very well. Hotspur is, well, hot. He burns and flares. His love is passionate, his anger furious. At the beginning of the play, he is perfect: loyal, fighting for his king, cracking heads and taking prisoners. He is the opposite of the king’s own son, Prince Hal, who is drinking, gambling and whoring with thieves and nobodies in the slimiest alehouses in London. It’s so bad that King Henry wonders if perhaps the children had been switched at birth, so that Hotspur is in reality his son and Hal is another man’s child. He feels like that would explain the contrast in their behavior.

Similarly, strong performances and strong direction presented the contrast between King Henry, who struggles mightily to be a leader to his people but can’t even control his own son — and fears that his failures may result from the fact that he himself is a usurper — and Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s favorite companion and a cowardly knave who loves nothing so much as his wine (and himself). Both older men try to guide and mold Hal in their own image, and both of them have deep moments of self-doubt despite facades of confidence and power. That old King Henry never knows that he is the ultimate victor in the battle for Prince Hal’s heart and mind is one of Part 2’s sad ironies.

Directorial choices obscured the duality of “Henry V” however, which weakens the viewers understanding of the play. In setting up the contrast of Hal, now King Henry V, or King Harry as he is constantly called (because he hasn’t had enough names yet?), and the French crown prince or Dauphin, Shakespeare further highlights the transformation of the king from dissolute young rake to proud and puissant king. The Dauphin is impulsive, rash and vain; King Harry is strong, uncompromising and surprisingly humble beneath his confidence. Harry is brutal at Harfleur; the Dauphin never even shows up. On the night before Agincourt, Harry walks among his men to cheer them but also comes to an understanding of the devastating weight of their souls upon him:  if they die, it is his fault, and only his. Meanwhile, in the French tents, the Dauphin, who has never seen battle, boasts of his fine horse and armor and wishes for daylight so he can bloody his sword. Yet the Great Performances version cuts nearly all of the Dauphin’s scene in the camp at Agincourt, leaving us only with the snippet of him gazing out over the field of battle saying, “I wish it were day.” For the rest of the play, he lurks and sneers. Without the stark contrast between the young men, we lose a valuable perspective on our King Harry — and an insight into the reasons for the French loss.

The proposal scene is, of course, delightful and completely unrealistic, because that’s what Shakespeare does best:  witty scenes of two beautiful people falling instantly in love because they can’t help themselves (and mainly because they talk themselves into it). This scene also provides one last glimpse of Prince Hal in its wittiness and humor, but this is a Prince Hal measured and tempered by time and experience, a man who has acheived his father’s hopes for him, the very ambitions that were set up back at the beginning of these plays.

It was difficult not to compare this version with Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful movie version. I’ve watched that so many times, I’ve basically memorized it, and so it was challenging to try to let go of those images and watch this version with an open mind. I will have to watch it again to get the full effect. I though Tom Hiddleston did a wonderful job of embodying the king and brought his own unique style and interpretations to the role.

Overall, I thought the two parts of “Henry IV” were the strongest of the series. I will certainly come back to these recordings again for further viewing and see what else emerges. Finally, I am extremely thankful that these great actors had the opportunity to play these roles and that they were captured on film for all of us to enjoy.

What are your thoughts now that the series is over?

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