Charles and I watched the third episode of The Hollow Crown, the sort-of remake of 1960’s marvelous miniseries An Age of Kings that collected eight of Shakespeare’s 10 history plays to tell a complete story of British royal history from the fall of Richard II in 1399 to the Battle of Bosworth Field and the death of Richard III in 1485. This time around the BBC chose to perform only the first four plays in the cycle (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) — probably because Shakespeare wrote them later than the last four and therefore they’re simply better plays — and as the series title used the name of the first episode of Richard II in An Age of Kings, “This Hollow Crown.” This episode was an adaptation of Henry IV, part 2 by Richard Eyre, who also directed — and had done those same tasks for Henry IV, part 1 — and aside from the fact that part 2 is a weaker play (not even Shakespeare was immune to sequel-itis; it’s largely the same mix of elements as part 1 but not done as effectively), Eyre’s writing and direction had the same strengths and weaknesses as his approach to part 1. The sequel starts … well, Shakespeare started it at the castle of the Earl of Northumberland (Alun Armstrong), awaiting news from the Battle of Shrewsbury (the climactic action of part 1) and getting a false report that his son Hotspur has killed Prince Hal and Henry IV himself has been taken prisoner by the rebels. This came from the rumor mill, and is shortly (more shortly here than Shakespeare intended) followed by someone who was actually at the battle, who gives Northumberland the truth: Henry IV’s forces won the battle and Northumberland’s son Hotspur (played in the dramatization of part 1 by Tom Armstrong, Alun Armstrong’s real-life son, which was a nice touch even though Tom’s performance in the role fell far short of his counterpart in An Age of Kings, the then little-known Sean Connery) was killed by Hal.
But, as he did with part 1, Eyre chooses to reshuffle the scenes and start with Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale, continuing the same oddly humorless approach to the role he used in part 1) and his crew of reprobates around the Boar’s Head Tavern. What makes that especially odd is that — unlike Orson Welles, who did a fusion of the two Henry IV plays in Chimes at Midnight and reshuffled them so that, while the words were Shakespeare’s, the dramatic meaning was exactly the opposite (Shakespeare obviously intended Hal’s transformation from hanger-on at the Boar’s Head to responsible British monarch as a maturation, a growing into adulthood, while Welles saw it as him cutting himself off from his genuine humanity and turning into a Hitler-style dictator) — Eyre is clearly more interested in the scenes about Henry IV, his court and the rebellions against him than he is in the lowlife scenes. The marvelous sequence in which Falstaff and his friend Shallow (David Bamber) attempt to recruit soldiers for Henry IV’s army and come up exclusively with sorry specimens of humanity like Feeble (Tom Cornish), Wart (Michael Keane), and Mouldy (Max Wrottlesley), was clearly intended by Shakespeare to be a laff-riot, a counterpoint to the serious scenes involving Henry IV, the Duke of Lancaster (Henry Faber) and the rebels, whom Lancaster tricks into giving up their arms and then arrests and drags off to be executed (I couldn’t help but joke, “I’m sure Obama wishes he could do that to the Republican Congressmembers!”). Here it’s no more than mildly amusing because of Eyre’s and Beale’s annoying approach to Falstaff and his character, deliberately playing against the humor. (Welles, playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, took a more “serious,” more pathetic — in the good sense — view of the character; these people took that and ran with it.) Jeremy Irons repeats his performance as Henry IV from part 1 but is less effective this time around — his famous “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” soliloquy, in which (like Hamlet, Macbeth and quite a lot of other Shakespearean characters, laments his inability to sleep — enough Shakespearean people have insomnia that some critics have suggested the Bard suffered from it himself), isn’t delivered with anywhere near the furor and pathos the little-known but excellent Tom Fleming brought to it in An Age of Kings.
One odd thing about Henry IV, part 2 is that much of it is relatively mediocre but it packs its biggest dramatic punches at the end, with Henry IV’s fear of what’s going to happen when he croaks and his wastrel son ascends the throne (when Charles and I re-watched An Age of Kings on DVD in 2010 we noted the parallels between the Henrys and the Bushes, with Henry IV as George H. W. Bush, Henry V. as George W. — who gave up drinking and settled down, got his country into a foreign war that looked at first like an easy victory, then got bogged down by a local resistance into a long and draining occupation — and John of Lancaster, Hal’s brother, as Jeb, the man George H. W. and Barbara were convinced would be the second President Bush) — this time around the parallel that came to mind was the long-lived, eminently responsible Roman Emperor Tiberius and his understandable anxieties over what the Roman people would be in for when his heir, Caligula, took the throne. Once Henry V is crowned, Falstaff assumes he’ll get to be the power behind the throne — only when he approaches the new king in public, Henry V rebuffs him: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers! How ill white hairs become a fool and jester,” a scene whose built-in pathos even Richard Eyre and his oddball cast (Henry V is Tom Hiddleston, Loki from the Thor movies, and he’s quite good but obviously more comfortable as king than he was as the hanger-on at the Boar’s Head — the great Henry V’s on film remain Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh in their self-directed features and Robert Hardy from An Age of Kings) couldn’t entirely undo, though they tried their best. I’m not sure what to make of This Hollow Crown as a whole — Eyre is a better director than Rupert Goold, who did Richard II in an altogether too pompous, too stilted fashion that emphasized Shakespeare the Literary Genius over Shakespeare the Master Dramatist, but here too (more so than in part 1) there seems to be a rather stiff quality, a decision to go after Prestige with a capital P rather than to tone down the deadly “classic” associations with Shakespeare and present the plays as living drama the way the makers of An Age of Kings, producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes, did.