Henry IV? YES.
Hotspur & Kate? YES.
Supporting cast? YES.
Hal was great for the serious stuff (his showdown with Hotspur was cool) but let’s be honest, he was NOT funny, or at least, for those who have seen the play before, he seemed insincere, like the hard working conditions on a sweltering hot movie set all day had really tired him out or – as I rather suspect is the case – Hiddleston just couldn’t find it in his heart to genuinely laugh and be hysterical in Falstaff’s presence because he was trying too hard to act and not truly rolling in stitches. Seen David Giles’ 1979 version? Or Chimes at Midnight? It takes someone who ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS WHY FALSTAFF IS THE MOST HILARIOUS THING in real life, in order to create an infectious mirth which sets the audience gasping for air. Either that or I’ve seen some bloody good actors in my time. Wherever that ‘magic funny bone’ is, Hiddleston never found it. Towards the end of their scenes, Hal’s amusement became a little more genuine but generally – and particularly during their first scene and the impersonation scene – I was left feeling cheated of the true comic potential of Henry IV.
I know it was trying to dance the line between funny/macabre, amusing/unsettling but its steps were clumsy and instead of leaping from one side of that line to the other in energetic polarity – building up a mania comparable to American TV sitcoms which can suddenly become all too serious – it shambled a tight lazy passage down the middle somewhere and achieved little or no contrast.
Speaking of Falstaff… Simon Russell Beale is an excellent actor, at the 5 star level to be sure. But THERE IS NO WAY HE IS FAT ENOUGH to play Falstaff. No way on earth. If The Hollow Crown seeks to be iconic and definitive, the perfect screen adaptation of the plays, there it made another blunder; perhaps that is why the audio feed was so weird? I mean, what the hell dude, Simon Russell Beale is a stage actor, I’m sure he has a perfectly loud and resonating voice… so why did every word of his sound like it was being mumbled down a drain pipe? As a media production engineer I can tell you it was almost certainly because the field recorder wasn’t doing his job properly and the post-production failed to make amends in the mixing room. Even so, with a larger, more ‘portly’ Falstaff, even that little technical issue would have been swallowed up by the inescapable, the majestic, the obese, the enormous, the swaggering cart-load of sack that Falstaff should have been, with a loud boisterous voice shaking from his obscene belly.
Last problem (and these three problems combined really let the otherwise magnificent production down): extras. If I had been playing Hal and I stepped onto the set to film the tavern scenes and I saw a gaggle of four or five blokes… SCREEN IS NOT LIKE STAGE. I would tell them to slash my pay-check and get some more extras in. The tavern should have been heaving and that alone might have made the comedy more genuine. Kids should have been poking their heads between their parent’s feet and serving girls racing to get the meat and mead out fast enough… instead we were given no more extras than might be expected in the theatre and the result was a massive void of warmth, of fraternity, of comedy and of mischief which was left to the actors to conjure up… without the help of a real audience? Impossible. That is like fishing an empty lake or sowing seeds on concrete. You know how it is when everyone gets together for a laugh… the actors stop acting and start laughing along too!
Such a shame, Richard II was a masterpiece and this was… not a masterpiece. It was a beautiful boy with a mirthless soul, a fairly large – yet not grotesquely fat – man with a speech impediment and a tired bunch of extras trying to laugh the laughs of thrice their number, losing breath and energy instead of being swept away on a torrent of guffaws. So close, yet so far. Great sets, great fight sequence, GREAT Henry IV (seriously, I don’t think any actor could improve on Irons’ magnificent, regal, authentic and captivating portrayal of Henry IV. He redeemed the whole thing and made it kinda awesome I admit). Worth watching? Definitely. The screen adaptation to take us through the next 20 years?
Um… I think I’ll stick to Orson Welles and Anthony Quayle, for – in sooth – even if Irons did smash it for 6, we all know who the true star of Henry IV really is.