Is there anyone who’s having a better afterlife than William Shakespeare?
This past summer – the Bard’s high season, as it were – saw the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s strong production of “King Lear” at Boscobel in Garrison graced not only by Ben Brantley, The New York Times’ chief theater critic, but by a certain former president and secretary of state. (That would be you, Bill and Hill.)
Autumn in New York gives us Orlando Bloom’s Romeo and Ethan Hawke’s Macbeth – and that’s just for starters.
In the meantime, Bard buffs can content themselves with TV films of his four greatest history plays. “The Hollow Crown,” from Sam Mendes and Neal Street Productions, begins Sept. 20 (9 p.m.) on PBS’ “Great Performances” with “Richard II,” starring Ben Whishaw (the sly Q in “Skyfall”) and Patrick Stewart. It continues Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 with “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” with Jeremy Irons as Henry, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff, Joe Armstrong as Hotspur and Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies) as Prince Hal, who, of course, becomes the title character in “Henry V” (Oct. 11).
Purists may quibble with some aspects of these adaptations. Historians can point out all the discrepancies. But by and large, this is good stuff, particularly when considered from Shakespearean scholar Marjorie Garber’s take on these plays in her book “Shakespeare After All” – that they show the progression of kingship from medieval hauteur to modern collegiality.
Shakespeare’s Richard II is very much a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, at least initially in this most poetic of the Bard’s works, and Whishaw does a very good job of conveying the kind of self-regard you find among certain leaders who are susceptible to flattery and oblivious to enemy strength. It is no small irony in this play that the more Richard suffers at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) – who initially seeks only to regain what Richard took from him but ultimately usurps him –the more profound and compassionate Richard becomes, the more he understands “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.”
In “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV and the stolid Rory Kinnear gives way to the impassioned Jeremy Irons. (I know that these are separate films by different directors, but perhaps the executive producers could’ve found a young actor more like Irons to play Bolingbroke in “Richard II” and thus provide greater continuity.)
Irons’ Henry has learned only some of the lessons of usurpation, not the least of which is that what the people love today they will turn on tomorrow. Anyway, he’s got bigger problems: He thinks the charismatic Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) would make a better heir than his own degenerate eldest, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston), who prefers to hang out at The Boar’s-Head Tavern in Eastcheap with the mooching, lying, thieving, whoring, manipulating Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).
Shakespeare, who must’ve been a tennis player, has all kinds of fun here with doubles – two father figures, two son figures, four sets of crossed purposes. Yet despite the electricity of Irons’ Henry, Beale’s Falstaff and Armstrong’s Hotspur (ably supported by Michelle “Downton Abbey” Dockery as his equally hot-blooded wife), the centerpiece of “Henry IV” remains Prince Hal. And here, Tom Hiddleston doesn’t disappoint, giving hints of the commanding persona – particularly in the riveting scene in which Hal coolly saves Falstaff’s hide from the Lord Chief Justice – that will emerge from its chrysalis in “Henry V.”
After the painterly medieval grandeur of “Richard II” and the kaleidoscopic shifts of “Henry IV” from tavern to kingly court to battlefield, “Henry V” is a surprisingly intimate production, perhaps because it is the only one directed by a woman (Thea Sharrock). The big set pieces that galvanized Britain in wartime in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film and stirred a later generation in Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 treatment are delivered quietly here to a few actors, so that when Hal – now called Harry – describes himself and his soldiers at Agincourt as “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” you know he means it.
You get the sense here that Harry – who in real life was a pawn in the power struggle between his cousin Richard II and his father, Henry IV, before growing up to become England’s great warrior king – absorbed the lessons of their failed leadership. A leader must be part of the people even as he stands apart from the people.
There are those – including scholar and Falstaffian Harold Bloom – who see the Bard’s Henry V as a heartless Machiavel, tossing Falstaff and his old pals aside cruelly when he hits the big time as king. And Hiddleston is a fine enough actor to keep Hal/Harry’s motivations complex and ultimately mysterious. But ask yourself this: If you were a leader, responsible for lives as well as livelihoods, and your old pals were only interested in the high life, what would you do?
I think you would conclude that Henry V – no longer willing to let time waste him – makes the right choice.
For more, visit pbs.org – Georgette Gouveia