The Hollow Crown - Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2

A tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy

Paul Brian McCoy: The BBC's buildup to the Olympics continues with last week's presentation of Henry IV, Part Two, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre. The play continues the story of King Henry's sickness and demise, alongside his son, Prince Hal's throwing off of frivolity and ascension to the throne.

So what were your first impressions?

Kelvin Green: I like plot. I like characters too, of course, but if there's no plot then I have a hard time with a story. Nothing much seemed to happen in Henry IV, Part Two. "Continuation" is apt, as it seemed like tying up loose ends rather than a story in itself.

Paul: I have to agree. Part One is one of my favorite works by Shakespeare, if only because it is so ripe for adaptation. But it has a complete narrative arc, whereas Part Two really does feel like there are a couple of important scenes and the rest is really just filler material.

Kelvin: Exactly. The final half an hour or so is good, solid stuff, but the rest seems, as you say, like filler.

That said, I thought Falstaff came across better in this part than the first, even though he didn't really do anything.

Paul: He did. I think the reason for that is probably the fact that Part Two is all about the decline of Hal's two father figures. So the more somber tone and dramatic seriousness of the presentation plays better here than it did in the obviously comedic sections of Part One.

Here Eyre's tone actually matches the material.

Kelvin: I think you're right there. I was also going to say that I thought Jeremy Irons was stronger in this film -- as he got more screen time -- and that ties in with what you're saying about it being about Hal's Two Dads.

Paul: Yes! Irons really gets to throw his weight around here and gives the dying king everything he's got. His insomnia speech was brilliant - a high point for the two adaptations.

The use of blues and grays during his late night ramble was gorgeous, even if it did keep Irons in darkness more often than not, forcing the strength of the scene to rely on the words themselves, rather than the physical performance.

It was similar to the voiceover soliloquies of Hal and Falstaff earlier, except we at least got to see them act their roles while the voiceover played.

Kelvin: Yes indeed. I was disappointed last week, as I like Irons a lot, but he showed his quality this time around. That speech was thrilling to watch.

On the subject of lighting and colour, I liked how cold everything looked, as if life was draining out of the kingdom itself.

Except for Falstaff, of course, who had a healthy fire lit glow wherever he went. Which, I suppose, ties into that idea of him being in a sort of denial, hiding away from what's going on in the nation at large.

Paul: Yes, exactly! I was also struck by just how much of the play is set indoors, in small rooms, around tables, in hallways, or by bedsides. The state of the nation really is tied directly and intimately to the confined state of the characters.

Even the build-up to battle, that is deceptively side-stepped, avoids an abundance of outdoor shots until they actually begin cutting people down.

Kelvin: Yes, I do miss the sweeping widescreen of the Richard II adaptation, but the closer focus worked well here. It was more traditional, perhaps, but solid.

Paul: The more we talk about this, the more I'm kind of going back on my filler comment at the top. I keep trying to figure out what should have been cut to make it more streamlined and I'm having a hard time.

Maybe just the scenes with Falstaff and Justice Shallow?

Kelvin: Those seem to be the most extraneous.

Paul: I was going to say the scenes with Lord Chief Justice could go, but they really do set up Hal's betrayal in the end.

I'm not sure we really needed Hal spying on Falstaff and Doll. It really just made him look even more like a prick. Of course, if you cut that, you barely have any Hal in the play at all.

Kelvin: True, and there was that odd mini-scene where Hal is writing in a book but says no lines. They probably didn't need that.

Paul: That's even less Hal. It was like that was slipped in to make sure Hiddleston got some more facetime during the earlier parts.

Kelvin: Loathe as I am to criticise Shakespeare, I'm not sure this play is really all that well-balanced, although I'm not familiar with the text, so I'm not sure how much of it was adaptation.

Paul: I agree. I feel a bit pompous tearing down the structure of Shakespeare, but really that's what every performance of his plays do. There are rarely any full productions and the directors make cuts all the time as they hone their productions down to something presentable in a feasible amount of time.

Branagh's Hamlet is a good example of that. He filmed the entire play, leaving nothing out and it ran for two hundred forty two minutes!

Kelvin: And yet was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, I believe. Oh, Oscar.

Paul: I'd love to see that script.

Kelvin: You probably have!

Paul: Ha! No, the film script! Shakespeare's plays are notorious for being barebones affairs. The staging, the performances, everything but the dialogue is really up to the creative team involved.

Kelvin: A fair point.

All of the Falstaff on the road stuff felt like filler. I know why it's there from a structural perspective; you've got to have Falstaff away from Hal so that the big surprises at the end when they come together again work, but I wouldn't have missed those scenes if they'd been cut.

So yes, I wouldn't have been unhappy if Falstaff's bumpkin adventures had been cut and he was just exited stage left, pursued by a bear, only to reappear later for the finale. That said, I would have missed the recruitment scene. I liked that, even if it didn't have as much confidence as I'd have liked.

Paul: The recruitment scene is a good one. It feels as though these Falstaff scenes are in the play, as you've said, to keep him and Hal apart, but also to provide small but memorable roles for the performers. They don't add much to the play overall, but they're nice, fun parts.

Just checked further and the CUT version of Branagh's Hamlet is two and a half hours!

Kelvin: Yikes!

What you say about the performers is quite right. Simon Russell Beale was very good as Falstaff, and he had more to do this week, so I appreciated that, but the scenes as a whole seemed artificial and pointless, serving a plot purpose without being part of the plot.

But perhaps I'm banging on a bit too much about this.

Paul: No, you're right. The play is one of Shakespeare's weaker, but it works fairly well from a straight performance perspective. If you start thinking about the story, the flaws begin to appear, but it's hard to make the play work without the pointlessness somehow.

It's an enigma.

Kelvin: Exactly.

Paul: Like Tom Hiddleston's performance.

There. I said it.

Kelvin: Oooh!

I admit, I wasn't as impressed as I wanted to be. I remember when I first heard about these plays, it was Hiddleston -- fresh from The Avengers -- that caught my interest the most.

Loki was so good. Hal, not so much.

He had good, strong moments -- like the mistaken death scene -- but seemed lost at times.

Also, is it supposed to be a joke that Hal can't seem to tell when people are dead and not asleep?

Paul: That mistaken death scene is an excellent example of the problem here.

I think, and this is my completely unqualified opinion, that Hiddleston is playing Hal in more of a traditional, classical Shakespearean style, more akin to Olivier. However, Eyre's extremely realistic approach emphasizes a more natural performance - so much so, that a lot of the humor was lost because of it in Part One.

When I was younger I never cared for Olivier's Shakespeare because it seemed so artificial and melodramatic, but that's on me. Branagh found a nice middle ground that Hiddleston aims for but misses, in my humble opinion.

Kelvin: I can see that. When I think about both parts now and look back at the cast, Hiddleston is the only one who stands out as An Actor. The rest seem to inhabit the world Eyre has created a bit better.

However, I wonder if that is not the point, since Hal is this weird creature, stuck between two worlds.

Paul: Ooh, I like that.

Kelvin: Hiddleston doesn't fit in, but perhaps he's not supposed to, because Hal doesn't.

I may be giving them too much credit.

Paul: He IS playacting after all.

Kelvin: Exactly.

Paul: Thematically, that's a very nice bit of interpretation. I can see that.

I just wish it didn't create such cognitive dissonance while watching. Is it Hal who can't come across as natural or is it Hiddleston?

Kelvin: Yes, that is what makes me think that I'm giving them too much credit -- and also because I only just thought of it now -- but you also get one or two characters who also see it.

So maybe it was intended.

Paul: I will say, looking ahead, that his Henry V is much more successful.

Kelvin: But then it's a different kind of play.

Paul: Exactly.

Kelvin: It's a puzzle.

Paul: So I'm just going to go ahead and embrace the fact that I didn't like the performance regardless of whether it was intentionally Acting or not.

Kelvin: Ah, you see, given how good Hiddleston is in everything else I've seen him in, and given how I'm not completely convinced by the general direction of Eyre's, er, direction, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Paul: Whichever way we cut it, the director allowed/encouraged it and it took me out of the play.

Kelvin: That's fair.

Paul: I really need to see Hiddleston play something that isn't Shakespearean or prone to Mock-Shakespearean dialogue. How does he play a contemporary person? He never really stood out in the Wallanders I've seen.

Kelvin: That's funny, I was just thinking that. I know he's in Wallander, but I don't remember it. So that's a qualifier to my "everything else I've seen him in" statement!

Paul: Of course, I've only watched the first season of Wallander. I need to get caught up on that, as Series Three is airing right now.

Kelvin: Yes, I sort of forgot about it. I've seen the first series twice, so that sort of counts.

I don't think I could ever get past the weird English-people-playing-Swedes thing.

Paul: I watched it alongside Zen and old episodes of Van Der Valk, so it was kind of theme for me there for a while.

Kelvin: It was the same reason I didn't watch Zen. I'm so weird sometimes.

Paul: Ha!

Kelvin: And yet, I'm fine with Shakespeare.

I don't expect Hamlet to be performed in the original Klingon, for example.

Paul: Someone needs to Kickstarter a Klingon Shakespeare Troop that works the convention circuit performing the plays in full Klingon - language, costume, everything.

I'd crowdfund that.

Kelvin: Me too. Let it start here!

Paul: Surely there's a Nerd/Shakespeare confluence reading this? Have at thee!

Kelvin: HISlaH!

I feel as if we've drifted from the matter at hand, which perhaps reflects how we felt about this part of The Hollow Crown.

Paul: I was about to say the same thing.

So my initial reaction after viewing was two point five at best, but after talking it through I think I can bump my rating up to three. How about you?

Kelvin: I'm thinking a three also. Although I'm wary of cutting Shakespeare too much, part of me wonders if they shouldn't have put the two parts of Henry IV together and cut away some of the fat.

Pun sort of intended.

Paul: Ha! Agreed, whole-heartedly.

Kelvin: That said, I look forward to Henry V, as it's one of my favourites.

Paul: There are some very interesting directorial choices made in Henry V. I can't wait to talk about it!

Kelvin: Soon!

Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.

Kelvin is also writing and illustrating the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, Horror Among Thieves. You can contribute to the project, along with other LoTP games at indiegogo!

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.


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