The Hollow Crown and My Tales of Shakespeare

Ensign Lestat's TV Log, 19/10/2013

When it comes to the Bard, I have mixed feelings about him. His work encompasses a variety of topics and emotions. We have comedies about wooing, we have great battle stories about kings of the past, we have fantastical tales about magic. And, that's not looking at his poems and sonnets which sing about love and its many wondrous qualities.

I was introduced to Shakespeare the same way a lot of my generation was, through school text books. His work was drolly put in front of us, and we matched his words to footnotes. It never was much fun at the time, but I look upon the handful of his plays that I've read with more fondness now.

There's a lot to read in between the lines, a lot to admire. We get a good look at the society of the time and reading the plays in context with the acting world of the time (a downtrodden and crude society attended to by the rabble only) it makes his work more accessible.

As I said, I've only actually read a handful, I haven't got around to the rest, not for lack of trying however, just haven't really had the time.

This year, I went on a much-needed vacation to Shakespeare-land - the United Kingdom, and made my way to the Globe Theatre. This is not the original one, of course, that one is actually located a few yards away, a parking lot or something with a plaque pasted in front stating that it is the aforementioned Globe. However, the re-created Globe is a magnificent structure, par excellence. The first view of it is mesmerising, and it felt like we'd stepped into a whole different era.
The magnificent Globe Theatre in London.
I mention this because it was the beginning of a somewhat Shakespearean year for me. Following this wonderful visit, and my wistful thoughts of my previous trips to good ol' Stratford-Upon-Avon, I returned home to learn about this brand new television series called 'The Hollow Crown'. And just this past week I sat through Joss Whedon's adaptation of 'Much Ado About Nothing'.

Now, I'll confess to you that I did not, at first, know that 'The Hollow Crown' series was based on Shakespeare's plays. No, I was taken in by the massive star cast that featured a host of names that I am familiar with.

As for 'Much Ado', it was a rendition that intrigued me, and it starred some more names that I know.

Much Ado About Nothing

A somewhat merry tale is this, where young Claudio (Fran Kranz)  is to marry fair Hero (Jillian Morgese), but their match is hindered by the vile attempts of Don John (Sean Maher) and his cohorts who wish to thwart their happiness.

In the end, it is, as the title goes, it is all much ado about nothing, as all is innocent and good, and happiness abounds between the young couple, and a match is made between enemies Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof).

Of course, this Shakespearean play is set against a modern backdrop but shot in black and white. It's a nice touch, which gives it an old world feel. It is an updated adaptation along the lines of Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet'. The modern setting however is not so easily translated from the text, despite valiant attempts to juxtapose the two.

I believe where this film scores in entertainment value, it lacks in story. The story is just too outdated, the words are too loud to make the visuals more relevant. The story isn't poignant, but it is entertainment.

However, knocking this film does its cast a great disservice. I do not believe I have come across a more casual, effortless bunch of performances in Shakespeare before. Though the likes of Kranz, Maher and Morgese appeared at times to be struggling, they were outdone by the brilliance of Acker, and especially Clark Gregg (Leonato), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro) and Nathan Fillion (Dogberry). These four uttered Shakespeare like it was a pop song. It flowed smoothly and fluently, and their actions and gestures were in tandem at all times. I was especially thrown by Diamond's performance, he was outstanding. I firmly believe his performance is award-worthy, though which award I do not know. Gregg is admirable, as always, quietly worming his way into being a scene-stealer, while darling Fillie finally brings humour back to Shakespeare. He says it like he means it, even though we all know Dogberry hasn't a clue what he's saying.
The star performers - Acker, Gregg, Diamond and Fillion.
I was hesitant to watch this film at first, believing myself to be enduring two hours of sheer boredom, but I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it actually was. Perhaps picking up a more relevant or relatable source material would've done wonders for this film, but it will undoubtedly endure in many a viewers' mind.

The Hollow Crown
The Hollow Crown - the tale of three kings.
'The Hollow Crown' is a four-part miniseries that features four Shakespearean plays, the tetralogy that is Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V.

These stories are all interconnected. While I'm not sure if they were written to be a series, the BBC did an admirable job of knitting them together. These tele-adaptations faithfully reproduce Shakespeare's words in the time-period the plays are set in.

Richard II

Sir Patrick Stewart is John of Gaunt
Rising star Ben Wishaw plays the lead in this tale of betrayal, treason and deception. The young king at the start of the episode presides over the sentencing of two noblemen - one is exiled, the other banished for six years. Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) is the cousin banished for six years, much to the pain of his father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart). It isn't long before Gaunt passes away. But this isn't half as shocking as the young king's actions upon his death. This leads to a series of events which eventually leads the king to ruin, and sees Bolingbroke on the throne.

I keep the summary short as the story will most likely be known to most. I'm not very familiar with that era of history. My interests have lain in the Tudor times, the Victorian times, or else, way far back to the legends of King Arthur.

Richard II, I've learnt, was an unpredictable king, prone to contradictory actions that led his people to be very wary of him. Shakespeare definitely got that attribute down pat - as the king makes a promise one moment, only to break it the next. The violent way he was overthrown is subtly indicated in the adaptation, but the tortured souls of those involved is beautifully put forth.

Bolingbroke, the Duke of York (David Suchet), York's son and the others all look torn by their own decision, though, given the unpredictability of the king, it appears an apt decision.

I'll confess that I've got my eye on Whishaw's career - the man is a talent to be reckoned with, I believe, though his distinctive looks and mannerisms may be his undoing. As Richard he cranks up the mannerisms, wistfully and melodiously delivering his dialogues, while ably showcasing Richard's mental instability. The real Richard definitely had some mental issues that were not diagnosed at the time.
Ben Whishaw is King Richard.
This episode in the series has a lot of bright sparks, as I've mentioned. But, at times it feels weighed down by its source material. Without any knowledge of the real Richard, Whishaw comes across as excessively pedantic, but perhaps that's to his credit. However, often I found myself distracted by some of their actions. For example, the scene where Richard returns from his voyages, he has a long dialogue scene on the beach with many of his confederates. Unfortunately, Whishaw spends the majority of that scene fiddling with his headscarf. Now, I don't know if that was intentional or not, and kudos to Whishaw for competently delivering his dialogue despite the fiddling, but I didn't catch a word he said during it, and that was frustrating. That scenes stands out in my head, and I firmly believe the director could've tried to do better.

Also, there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding Richard's death, but here we're shown the killer clearly - this is not necessarily part of the play, as the man who brings in his body doesn't actually confess to the murder. A bold decision made by the makers, but it perhaps takes a little away from the story.

Now, one would think I did not enjoy this episode - in fact I did, but it was not without its flaws. It seemed to be finding its feet, but it was a spectacle all the same, and a well-put together effort.

Henry IV - Part 1

Henry IV - Jeremy Irons
When next we return to this series, we follow King Henry IV, earlier known to us as Bolingbroke. Jeremy Irons takes on the mantle as the ageing king, distraught that his son, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is but a frivolous playboy and doesn't hold a candle to Northumberland's (Alun Armstrong) son, Harry Percy (Joe Armstrong, yes they're father and son in real life too). Percy is always strategising and unbeknownst to the king, attempting to gain the throne. Of course, King Henry is sure that his dilettante of a son is a curse upon his own, previous treasonous acts.

Hal himself is exactly what his father fears. Our introduction to him is in a brothel owned by Mistress Quickly (a nigh-unrecognisable Julie Walters). He is very close to penniless philanderer Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) who is always pilfering moolah from the foolish Prince.

They continue on their merry way till an attack by Percy becomes a certainty. And then, after being given the lecture of a lifetime by his father, Hal signs on to take on Percy. With his father by his side, they ride into battle. Falstaff and Hal's other mates are also part of the army, as are Hal's younger brothers (one at least).

The battle is glorious, shot in all its dirt and gore-riddled splendour, without being too in your face. Shakespeare would have been proud methinks of the sequence that was eventually created from his words.

Part 1 introduces us to the characters and is an immediate improvement from the first episode. Despite its rather seedy surroundings, the vulgarity is still kept to a minimum and there's thankfully no nudity, which in another production would have undoubtedly been included.
Young Prince Hal and his merry men - or thereabouts.
There is much hilarity drawn from Hal and Falstaff's antics, and we get a rounded view of the situation through the scenes with Percy and his wife as well as Percy's many advisers.

The action piece is intimate, bringing us into the heart of the battle, and is a highlight of the episode. There's a natural quality to the dialogue that makes following the story simple and makes it easy to connect with the characters.

We despise Percy, and feel sorry for the King. We also want to strike dear Hal on the head to make him snap out of his joviality to see Falstaff for who he really is - a bad influence. Beale is great as Falstaff because he really makes you cringe, but his apparent love for the Prince is undeniable.

As the battle ends, we look forward to a brighter future for the two Henrys, as they are now united as a supportive father and son pair.
Father and son.
The two Armstrongs are brilliant here - though the younger of the two is rather loud. Jeremy Irons is infinitely believable as the melancholic king and renders his dialogues with surprising ease.

It's a complete story with a glorious and triumphant climax.

Henry IV - Part 2

When things go not thy way.
It is evident from the start of this episode that the King has not weathered the battle well. Hal also appears to be lapsing back into his pre-battle mode. More interestingly, Falstaff, now a knight of the court, is rubbing people the wrong way by flaunting his connection to the Prince and his official rank, while still carrying a great many fines and offences from his past. At this point, a jest by the Prince turns serious when Falstaff utters some truisms that are not to Hal's liking.

With bitter resentment in his heart, the Prince is faced with more tragedy when he returns home. The episode ends with a new Hal on the horizon.

A quieter episode with precious little of the Henrys and way too much of Falsaff. This seminal character is jarring at best, and despicable at worst. I couldn't stand him, to be honest. He changed his tone as much as his glass of liquor, and it's unfortunately pleasant to see him get his come-uppance.

I love the scheming and plotting in this episode, which is pretty much up there with the first episode. Not as much humour, but many an odious scene with Falstaff. Here lies one of Shakespeare's greatest faults - his comedy often doesn't translate well these days, which is a pity, since I'm sure it was hilarious at the time of writing.

Hal here is a changed man, far more worried about what lies ahead, and about his impending role in the kingdom.

Hal endures yet another lecture (poor lad) which is the result of a misunderstanding. This is a particularly well-made scene, where Irons is at his desperate best, and Hiddleston, though he speaks not for the majority of the lecture, convincingly displays just what Hal is feeling. It's rather a good piece of direction in all.

The performances here are extremely strong, as in the first part - particularly delightful are the effortless scenes involving the Archbishop of York (Nicholas Jones) and Mowbrey (Pip Torrens) - you can feel the intensity of their schemes and it becomes easy as a viewer to be drawn into the world.
The king is dead - long live the king. Yes, that look of fear is intentional.
The ending is bittersweet but segues comfortably into the last episode.

Henry V

King Henry V - new and improved and ready for battle.
Hal is now King Henry V and he is already preparing for a battle - the conquest of France. The entirety of the story is set in and around the battle. Here we see just how fully young Hal has transformed into a goodly king - his beard being the most obvious update.

He steels the hearts of his soldiers, but takes time to jest with his senior advisers, and, on occasion, looks fondly at his life gone by.

This beautiful character study is set against another set of intimate battle sequences. This adaptation is without a doubt the best of the lot. With John Hurt heading the show as the Chorus, which, by the way, is superbly written into the adaptation (kudos to the writing and directing team), it has a number of memorable and touching scenes that will stay with you for a long time.

My favourite among these is when the King, in disguise, discloses his true fears to two of his men. They do not know it is their king, and misrepresent his fears, but all is forgiven in the end.

The penultimate scene is a sweet romantic moment between the king and his soon-to-be bride. However, the episode ends with the king's untimely demise sometime soon after his marriage, which I think defeats the purpose of Shakespeare's play, obviously meant to be a 'comedy', not a tragedy - hence the inclusion of romance. But, keeping with the realism of the general output, it makes sense to put it in. Okay, I'm undecided on that point.

The cast of this episode contains a few names from the previous two, but they have much diminished roles. With the king being front and center of this study, he has the most screen-time.

My favourite in the series is the last one. Superlative is how I would describe this episode, because it, at no point, felt like a play from the 16th century, but much like a regular story, but with battles and an ancient tongue.
The king and his army.
And the numerous battles are seriously exciting, which is odd considering this is Shakespeare. You certainly get the blood pumping as you listen to the king's speeches and watch his army charge. There is a good mix of tragic melancholy that mingles with the battles. Yes, this one doesn't feel like a long drawn out affair, it moves quickly and easily.

Tom Hiddleston is Loki.
I come now to the most impressive performance of all of the episodes - Tom Hiddleston. I shall not shy away from stating that his turn in 'Thor' left a deep impression on me. He had originally been asked to audition for the title role by director Kenneth Branagh, which is, to say the least, bizarre, considering he looks nothing like him. He was then offered the role of Loki, a role that befits him well. I know all this because I read an interview in the local newspaper - for reasons I know not, because I rarely pick up the tabloid supplement. I think I was just intrigued by how much he looked like the comic book Loki. He also mentioned his luck at being asked to star in 'War Horse'. 

Little did I know that he would feature so heavily in my viewing pleasure thenceforth. His Loki is painfully identifiable, and the fact that 'Thor' felt much like a Shakespearean play just set it apart from all the other comic book films. 

I have caught Hiddleston's other performances in a handful of other films. 'The Hollow Crown' is pretty much the first feature that casts him as the lead. Having said that there's not all that much of him in episodes 2 and 3. Four, however, is a different story. He elegantly portrays a commanding presence, be it in court or on the field, and gone is the frivolity of yore, which made him very likable and eminently attractive in the previous two installments. 

Here his outward bravado hides a fearful heart, which seamlessly follows on from his fears in ep 3, where he was concerned about how his father's death would affect him. Granted, in the battle with Percy his shrieks of pain are most unbecoming (seriously, did they dub that, or was that him, weirdest sound I've ever heard, though I shouldn't judge a man who's just been impaled), but all in all he wears Shakespearean plays like a second skin and pulls the audience in.
The king in disguise.
Yes, he does look marvellous in this series, I'll confess that does sway my thoughts in his favour. Can you blame me? At least his looks, married with his charm and sufficient talent, do him and the casting directors a great benefit.

If ever there was a way to make Shakespeare accessible, this series has shown us how. Based on a history that the creators would have been all too familiar with, there are therefore no gimmicks, no tactics, just a very genuine understanding of the Bard and the meaning of his words. I have fallen back in love with this other world and these immortal words. To the Bard and the makers of this spectacular series, I doff my hat to you.


Check These Out