Wednesday 1 August 2012

The Hollow Crown by Mary Hoffman

I want to talk about Shakespeare as a writer of historical fiction. If you saw the remarkable BBC2 mini-series The Hollow Crown (Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry the Fifth) in July, you might be more or less aware of how he took historical facts and bent them into the shape required for his drama.

For example, Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Prince Hal were not contemporaries. Percy was born in 1364 or 1366, the man who would be Henry V in 1386. It was his father, Henry lV (born 1367), who was more nearly Hotspur's contemporary. But it makes a much better story to have the old king of the middle two plays in this history cycle - the second Shakespeare wrote although the events date from earlier than in the first tetralogy - worrying about how different his scapegrace son is from the fiery warrior of the north.

Many other characters are changed or combined from their historical equivalents and I certainly don't expect anyone, not even Shakespeare, to be as interested in the Plantagenets as I am. Suffice it to say that when Edward, Duke of York, says in Henry the Sixth, that "Edward the Third had eight sons," he - and Shakespeare - is simplifying!

But there is a book that will sort you out beautifully and it is by John Julius Norwich. I can't recommend Shakespeare's Kings (1999) too highly; he takes each play (including the doubtful Edward lll) and sets out the historical facts before showing how and what Shakespeare changed.

But back to The Hollow Crown. It was beautifully produced, costumed and acted, yet the first three plays were watched by an audience of only 800, 000 - "we few, we happy few" as one reviewer put it. I can only hope that iPlayer, catch-up TV and foreign rights will eventually boost those numbers considerably. I can remember John Barton's Wars of the Roses on TV and The Hollow Crown was a worthy successor.

Ben Whishaw played Richard the Second as a cross between Michael Jackson (complete with pet monkey) and Jesus Christ. That was fine by me but the addition of Saint Sebastian into the mix diluted the Christ-symbolism.

And here the director decided to add a bit of historical fiction of his own. Rupert Goold, to satisfy his own vision of the piece, took a step too far. In the play the deposed Richard is killed by Sir Pierce (pun intended?) of Exton, a character apparently invented by Shakespeare. The likely version is that the king was starved to death in his captivity in Pontefract Castle (or The Tower of London, if you are Rupert Goold).

This invention probably made the director think he had carte blanche to reinterpret the murder any way he wanted. But to give the deed to Aumerle was crass in the extreme. And having it done by crossbow was just so that he could underline the homo-erotic Saint Sebastian imagery he had spuriously introduced.

Aumerle (or Aumale) was the second Duke of York and cousin to both Richard the Second and Henry the Fourth. His closeness to Richard made him a conspirator against the new king but he repented. Nevertheless, it is absurd to think he would have chosen to show his loyalty by assassinating the deposed one.

At least, I think so! Which means I can accept some tampering with historical facts but not others. I suspect we all have our limits.

In the second play, Henry the Fourth had transmuted from Rory Kinnear to Jeremy Irons, a magnificently hollow-cheeked monarch, already racked both with the illness that would kill him and by guilt over the deposition and death of his cousin.

Prince Hal, later Henry the Fifth, was played by Tom Hiddleston, who is surely in line for a BAFTA.
And the two middle plays were groaning with well-known faces: Julie Waters as Mistress Quickly, Maxine Peake as Doll Tearsheet, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.

It was a masterly performance of Falstaff, but I was surprised to see comments on Facebook about his being "an unpleasant character"! Of course he was - that was part of Shakespeare's point. Too many people misunderstand him as just a fat, jolly Lord of Misrule and forget that he corruptly accepts payment to let recruits off the muster for the wars, steals money from supposed old friends and consistently bad-mouths his supposed young friend Hal.

And yet, and yet. Doll cares for him and Mistress Quickly's account of his death in Henry V is always truly moving. And I have never found the rejection scene in Henry lV Part Two as painful as it was  played by Russell Beale and Hiddleston.

There was so much too admire in these productions that the odd blemishes diminish to quibbles. I wish they hadn't cut the bits in Richard the Second that explain why Bolingbroke and Mowbray were fighting at the beginning and why the king banished them both.

But there was one omission by Thea Sharrock, the director of Henry V, that was extraordinary. Henry's order to kill the French prisoners leaves a very unpleasant taste (see John Sutherland's essay "Was Henry the Fifth a War Criminal?"). But to leave out the French murder of the boys who were pages and squires to the English army at Agincourt!

"Kill the poys and the luggage!" says the Welsh captain, Llewellyn and I shall never forget how Jonathan Slinger delivered it in the RSC History Cycle at Stratford. Sharrock seems to have cut it just in order to have the Boy (perhaps the same as Falstaff's Boy) grow up to be John Hurt, the Prologue.

What did you all think? Did the directors tamper too much with Shakespeare? Did Shakespeare tamper too much with Plantagenet history? Was Henry the Fifth a war criminal? Am I too picky? Do you have a crush on Tom Hiddleston? All answers welcome.


Juliette said...

Surely *everyone* has a crush on Tom Hiddleston!

Linda B-A said...

I'm sure the brilliant Hollow Crown versions will stand the test of time. Much of the acting was spine-tinglingly good (Patrick Stewart's John of Gaunt, for example) – and never, on a long run on the stage, could they have afforded to hire such a stellar cast. For me, the cinematography added so much, and I loved seeing these familiar scenes acted in the open air, by the seashore, in castles... I think the BBC are to be congratulated for investing in something of lasting value rather than playing the usual viewing figures game.

Katherine Langrish said...

I wish I'd seen more of them - for various social reasons - guests & so on - we only got to see Henry IV part 2,but your post has reminded me to look out for the dvd!

adele said...

I too will wait for the boxed set. Very interesting post!

Sue Bursztynski said...

At least you had the option of seeing it on TV. I too will wait for the DVD. Shakespeare was, I think, first and foremost a poet. If it worked better having Hotspur and Hal the same age, that's what he was going to do. And considering the liberties taken with his plays anyway, why shouldn't he take some of his own, if it made for a better play? Someone whose name I forget gave King Lear a happy ending. Lines were added. In more recent times, directors have, as you say, played around with the shows. I recently saw a production of Lear with a woman playing the role, a top actress too old to play most of Shakespeare's women. I was surprised at how comfortable I was with it once it began.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I didn't grow up breathing an atmosphere of Shakespeare -- as many of you did -- and I'm not familiar with this particular cycle. So for me this was my first viewing of each of these plays.

I thought the acting and sets were superb, but I really had trouble understanding some of the dialogue. This was highlighted by one of the post-play documentaries which showed scenes from Henry IV as played at the Globe, where every word was clearly enunciated.

Julie Walters was one of the worst offenders! I don't know if it was her or bad ADR but I had to keep asking Richard "What did they say?". Richard even had to repeat a line which should have been utterly clear, Hotspur's exultant: "Die merrily!"

Highlights for me were the sets and settings of Richard II & Henry IV part 1; Ben Wishaw, Jeremy Irons, and yes, the utterly mesmerising Tom Hiddleston.

My least fave bits were Falstaff and his band of comic-relief cronies, though there were some poignant moments.

The film-makers took risks. Some paid off, some didn't. But one thing is certain... Nobody does Shakespeare better than you Brits and the beeb! :-)

Ann Turnbull said...

I have no great knowledge of Plantaganet kings and, like Caroline, I'm not familiar with these plays (though I'd seen Henry V on film years ago). Therefore I didn't have any problems with either Shakespeare's or the directors' changes. I felt the productions were aimed at the average viewer, and as an average viewer I loved the plays, the suddenly familiar speeches, the glorious scenery and castles - and yes, Tom Hiddleston! Not surprised by low viewing figures since it was the middle of summer when people are often away. We had to miss the second one. I was bored by all the Falstaff goings-on in Henry IV Part 2, but absolutely riveted by the dramatic bits. And agreed with Caroline about the indistinct diction. Shakespeare is not difficult to understand but you do need to HEAR it!

Sue Purkiss said...

Watching The Hollow Crown made me realise what is probably a sublimely obvious point: that the better you know a Shakespeare play, the more you enjoy it. I know Hamlet, for instance, very well, and much of the pleasure of watching a new performance is in greeting favourite lines - and in seeing how they interpret it. But I don't know the histories at all, and so I struggled with these: it was difficult to work out who was who and what was going on - so despite the stellar quality of the acting, I'm ashamed to admit that I dozed off in the first two. Think I was out when the third one was on.

Reassuring to know that Shakespeare tinkered with the facts for the sake of a good story...

Marjorie said...

I really enjoyed them. I am fairly familiar with the 3 'Henry' plays, and I saw the Glonbe's touring production on Henry V very recently.

I was surprised at the murder of the boys being cut, as the killing of the french prisoners makes a lot less sense without it.

I found Falstaff rather irritating, but then I always find him a bit annoying.

I did have one or two minor irritations - since the battle scenes were being done so 'realistically' it bugged me a bit that Henry and his mates didn't bother with their helmets (Tom Hiddleston looks very nice on his white charger, but even so..)

Over all, I thought they productions were a triumph. The wodners of iPlayer meant I got to watch them all more than once, and I have pre-ordered the boxed set.

Lesley Cookman said...

Coming in very late on this - but I watched devotedly and was furious when the Wimbledon men's doubles threatened to cancel 4 part 1. Luckily, it was merely postponed for an hour.

Shakespeare used historical facts exactly as he wanted - look what he did to poor Richard III! (Which I've just seen as an Original Practices production at The Globe - brilliant.) But you don't watch or listen to Shakespeare to learn history, it's the theatrical experience. I adore all the plays I've read and seen - and I'm not at the end yet - and I really loved The Hollow Crown.