Year of Shakespeare: Henry IV – Part 1, on the BBCHistoryTelevisionYear of Shakespeare

  • Will Sharpe

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Henry IV – Part 1, dir. Richard Eyre, 7 July 2012 on BBC 2

By Will Sharpe

It was perhaps fitting, tuning in to this instalment of the BBC’s Hollow Crown, that the start was delayed by action from the All England Club. While Johnny Marray was busy becoming the first British men’s doubles champion for over seventy years, we were awaiting the play that – as Simon Schama had devoted a good portion of his Shakespeare telling us some two weeks earlier – is the place we go to find it. All England. From the lowliest ostler under Charles’ wain to the burdened King under the canopies of costly state, Shakespeare gave it a local habitation and a name, and, more importantly, a voice.

It is curious then to see in Richard Eyre’s Henry IV Part 1 a distinctly more Brueghelian than Shakespearean figuration of England in a production that seems primarily visual in its storytelling aims. Brueghel’s surrealism is absent, but the warm tones of his alehouse interiors, straight out of ‘The Peasant Wedding’, in which life is celebrated, and, in the latter half, the white lonely expanses of ‘Hunters in the Snow’, in which it is tested, are powerfully evoked. There might also be a touch of Beerbohm Tree in the curious visual sentimentality about the Eastcheap scenes, not least because that is where we begin, with a remarkably clean-cut Hal – his anachronistically designer-looking leather doublet and blond locks out of place even in this sanitised vision – looking fondly at a snoring Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) with his Doll. All around are the filmic tropes of yeasty Shakespearean low-life: black toothy grins; thirsty quaffing from earthenware goblets, with the overspill soaking into thick whiskers; buttocks slapped in ribald jest; shirts and smocks loosely, post-coitally thrown on; every available hanging adorned with drying linen or dead rabbits. This is all in sharp contrast to the slate-grey chastity of the lifeless court, a world of covering up under furred gowns, fingerless gloves and sheaves of parchment. We intercut between both at a remarkably brisk clip until Hal’s ‘I know you all’, rendered as a voice over as he picks his way through the teeming tavern, brings phase one to a close before we have really stretched our legs.

The unfortunate effect of such haste is that much of the rich linguistic texture that this play takes unusual leisure to wallow in is emptied out like piss from latticed windows. Of course it’s only a two-and-a-half hour film so cuts are unavoidable, yet England as seen in the play’s great variety doesn’t have a pictorial life; it is found, rather, woven into the infinite magnanimities of speech. Falstaff surely suffers the most in this textually stripped back environment, the Gadshill robbery being an excellent case in point: instead of his corpulently unimprovable musings on how to get his thick rotundity off the earth once down to listen for horses we get a long shot of a flustered fatso amidst a dusky wood, intercut with close ups of the dashing Prince and Poins laughing wordlessly.

Falstaff’s constant, mercurial soliloquising is one of the more insistent reminders that this play, however we might try to purge it of non-naturalistic features in order to serve it up as a screen narrative, is incorrigibly stagebound. Not for Eyre though. This is first and foremost a film, and one that insists you lock yourself squarely into the taut emotional patterns dictated by the lens’s roving eye. The eye is a lot less roving than that of Rupert Goold’s Richard II, in which the camera frequently came down with the documentary shakes, but that was in keeping with the private struggles of an individual in continual invasive close-up. Here our subject is a nation, and the camerawork is staid and magisterial, the mood sober and cold. Falstaff’s honour speech comes as a mournful voice-over as he troops, Henry V-like, around a wintry camp preparing for battle, and it is the battle, indeed the artful filming of the battle, to which the whole thing ultimately aspires, borrowing heavily from Branagh’s muddy clashes, the snowy wastes (largely CGI shots to my eye) lending an extra gravitas, though again pictures take precedence over words.

Beale, in the performance he does give, makes, as always, bold and coherent decisions. His is a thoughtful, morose Falstaff, defying almost every textual cue for bombastic confidence, the lines suffused with fatigued acceptance. At Hal’s ‘I do, I will’ we see a close up of glassy-eyed bewilderment, a sad foreshadowing of the rejection to come, though I hope he still has somewhere left to go by then. The infinite resources of personality in the role are dramatically pared back, yet it is perhaps the most daring, intelligently restrained reading of it I have seen, opting for cagier strokeplay where most would swipe for six. The rest of the cast is strong, albeit unnecessarily famous. Michelle Dockery has, for better or worse, managed to transcend her existence as Michelle Dockery in the British public’s imagination, and is now Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, having drunk from the poisoned chalice of being in a television series that has become, against all reasonable expectations, insanely popular. It is unusual, therefore, to find her cast in what is, in this production at least, a minor role as Lady Percy, one that could have been less distractingly filled by an actress who needed the work. But it is consistent with the project as a whole, where no role goes unfilled by the usual suspects of big-budget British costume drama. Patrick Stewart and Davids Suchet and Bradley took minor parts in Richard II, while here Julie Walters gives her best Mrs Overall as Mistress Quickly. Alun Armstrong, mainstay of all BBC Dickens adaptations, skirts the margins as a broad Geordie Northumberland, though he will of course come into his own in Part 2 when he is called upon to mourn the loss of his son, Hotspur, played with compelling force by his real-life son, Joe Armstrong.

The most cavernous, lonely halls are chosen as resonating chambers – the crown is, after all, hollow – for the oaky tones of Jeremy Irons’ voice as Henry (the capital of which is not lost on the rest of the performers, with Tom Hiddleston’s solid Hal having a ‘Being Jeremy Irons’ moment in the play within the play). Irons also embodies the film’s concern with having the two plays meet somewhere in the middle. He throws up at one point prior to the battle (in which he takes no part), and clutches his ear at another, having worn an invalid’s beanie hat throughout, importing some of the sickness that will, and should, come later. The overarching desire to impose an atmospheric continuity is a shame, as its absence is one of the great triumphs of the stage originals. Part 1 must remain unsullied by such steeping in overt artificiality and disease just as surely as Part 2 needs to leave behind the promises of health and purpose if we are to avoid sidestepping the shock of its darker moods. How they are achieved will be very interesting to see. A sadder and less prolix Part 1 than is probably necessary, but still one with much to recommend it.


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Author: Will Sharpe

Will Sharpe is one of the General Editors of Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others (RSC/Palgrave, 2013), as well as a Chief Associate Editor of the RSC Shakespeare individual volumes series, for which he co-edited Cymbeline with Jonathan Bate. He is one of the General Editors of Digital Renaissance Editions, and has taught at the University of Warwick, Nottingham Trent University and The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, where he is Visiting Lecturer.