The Hollow Crown is an ambitious and rare presentation of Shakespeare’s historical cycle. The title of the series, The Hollow Crown, is a reference to Richard II and Bolingbroke’s hand-off of the empty circle of gold that denotes kingship and the country. I will warn you that I do discuss the plots a little–if you’ve never seen these plays, just watch the cycle and come back to my comments; experience the stories without guidance and enjoy them they way they were mean to be: by being surprised by the tale rather than with a critical and comparing eye to the performances. You only get to learn the story once–make it count. That said, I’ll carry on…
The cycle, as written, has two major arcs. The first chronicles the rise of Henry V to the throne, from before his birth to his ascension and death. I have always found them to work best in that larger context, even as they provide insight to the individual stories of Richard, Bollingbroke, Hal IV, and England’s shift from absolute monarchy. Whether he set out to present how a king became who he was (including the influences of his father) or not, ultimately that is what happens when you put the 4 plays together. Each is it’s own story, but they have their best impact as a whole. The second arc is around a single cycle in the history of England’s monarchy and its predominance in the world. It begins with a weak King, to the repair of the country and collecting of the nobles, through to the loss of it all again merely 25 years later.
Outside of the characters, and the historical arc, the message of the cycle as it was presented is really about the the horror and sadness and pointlessness of war. This theme is carried from Richard II up through and till the end of Henry V when, in Shakespeare’s own words, the Chorus sums up the death of Henry, the birth of his son, and the loss of all he built… and so the cycle goes round and round like a circle of gold.
The individual movies each have their merits and style, so I’ve broken up my comments so that they can be considered separately as well as together.
Richard II is the least often produced of this cycle and, as I found this production to be utterly engaging and easy to follow, I had to consider why that was the case. It came down to something rather simple: as an historical play rather than a tragedy, Richard II just isn’t that sympathetic. He falls from power because he doesn’t know how to be more than a selfish tyrant. While you may be tempted to root for Bollingbroke’s rise, the truth is that he isn’t even that interested in taking the crown… it just snowballs for him as the lords rally around him. However, the greater percentage of the play presented in this version is very much from Richard’s point of view, so we really must lens the effects through that perspective. And it isn’t a pretty or satisfying picture. While there may be moralizing and political commentary sprinkled throughout, it really ends up just presenting the story of a fool king who loses everything.
Richard, like any of the major characters, has been played in many ways over the 100s of years the script has been around. Ben Whishaw (The Tempest, and upcoming Cloud Atlas and Skyfall) gives us an infantilized Richard with ambiguous sexuality. His desires and interests are mercurial at best and his wife is kept at a distance, which plays with these themes in a wonderfully subtle way. As a whole it is a strong cast (Jacobi, Stewart, Suchet, etc.) who support the younger lead with conviction and grace. In fact, at least Jacobi has played the main role in the past for the BBC. However, Whishaw more than proves his own worth.
In addition to the expert thespianship, it is also a stunningly designed production, visually and structurally. The script is edited down to a very focused set of points and the scenes build a wonderful mirror from beginning to end, especially as relates to the famous portraits that survive him. Given the presentation of this Richard, it is an apt metaphor.
Henry IV (Part I) Having ascended the throne, Henry, now played by Jeremy Irons in this cycle, has to deal with both his own countrymen and his own guilt that has built over the intervening 10 years. A monarchy based on politics rather than divine right is new and has its own dangers–you can only rule by power or flattery when all the lords want want your assistance. Little of this is obvious, but it nicely hinted at through Henry’s physical decline and snappish demeanor.
Add into this dynamic his son, Prince Hal, and we have the germ (with all the background) of how Hal becomes Henry V down the road. In fact, despite the title, most of the performance is focused on Hal. the spare moments with his father and their interaction are very much from Hal’s point of view.
Part 1 of this tale has some of the most famous and critically beloved scenes of Shakespeare, and some of the most poignant. They are well played by Hiddleston (Thor, Wallander, Avengers) as Hal and well supported by Beale’s sad and corpulent Falstaff. This dynamic of friends and pseudo-family is well paid off over the next two installments.
Joe Armstrong’s Hotspur is both believable and annoying all at once. This is as much Shakespeare as it is the blustering performance. Hotspur’s father, played by his real father Alun (New Trick‘s and so much else), adds a little bit of extra fun to the cast, though he is barely used in either this part nor Part II. Also of note was Hotspur’s wife (Michelle Dockery) who was directed very much to be his equal and who has appeared in some wonderful stuff over the years (Hogfather, Hanna, Fingersmith, and many BBC staples including Downton Abbey and Cranford). As a side casting comment, Mortimer is being played by Harry Lloyd (Viserys in Game of Thrones) and who still comes off as a bit of a prat.
While often performed, I still find this to be, on its own, a weak play. There is fun in the Inn and moments of reconciliation in the palace and on the field, but it is really just a stepping stone to Part II and, especially in this edit, a forced set of actions based on plot need rather than clearly motivated. This is primarily a factor of the editing of the script. However, there were also some interesting directing choices, which included some odd voice over choices for soliloquies and some inter-cut scenes that were originally just back-to-back.
Henry IV (Part II)
Dividing these plays is necessary because they were written that way, but this really is an immediate sequel to the first part, picking up scant days or hours after the end of the battle that closes Part I.
However, the focus of this play (as presented) shifts predominantly onto Falstaff and finally gives Beale the space he needs to show us the complexity of this broken and sad man. We get to see his rise and fall as well as watch Hal pivot from youth to adult in a wonderful set of scenes that sets the two mates on a collision course that resolves only in the last moments of the story.
In addition to the previous cast, Geoffrey Palmer gets to strut about significantly more in this portion of the story. Barely appearing in Part I, he has an important role in Part II and his own set of concerns and story as well.
There is also much more about the workings of politics, the difference between the classes, and the engine of corruption and honor that drives it all throughout this story. Frankly, if you don’t come out of these two plays recognizing the hypocrisy of state and the foolishness of war, the directors failed in their mission.
One aspect of the play I had completely forgotten was Henry IV’s slow unraveling and final speech, which explains what has been going on only in subtext for the previous 2 plays and 6 hours on stage. Without that monologue, this is a standard play about kings and power. With it, we have rich psychological canvas with which to understand the action. It is a speech that goes all the way back to the moment of his banishment by Richard II. It is these kinds of moments that makes watching the whole cycle together so exciting. Film also is able to bring scope to these stories across battlefields and lands that stage can hint at, but can never equal.
Henry V is the most oft produced of this cycle, and the most well known generally, especially given Branagh’s turn in the character and at the helm in his much acclaimed film version.
Henry V, as a play, had the honor of being the first one performed in The Globe. It also attempts to work on a broader canvas Shakespeare had never attempted before. To handle that, he uses the Chorus to, essentially, apologize and ask the viewers to come with them and “imagine” all the sites and scope. For a play, it works great… but as one of the stranger choices, the director left it in for the film. This aspect felt a little odd since all the sites and sounds are there on screen. It does introduce the language and keeps the framing in place as the Chorus opens and closes the play, but the meaning of the speech was a little off for the experience.
Hiddleston builds on his Henry in this next installment and gives us the king he was born to become. A just but slightly passionate man who knows that being king means sacrifices. But he is always, or most always, willing to take on the cost of his decisions.
The core of this film is the battle with France. The by-play between the monarchs is well presented. More importantly, the almost off-handed way they are willing to go to war is emblematic of what this movie in the cycle in particular is trying to talk to: the horror and pointlessness of war and who it really affects. We get our first moment of that at the end of Henry IV, Part I, but it comes full on in this script which focuses on the men on the field.
Which brings us to the most famous speech in the cycle: the St. Crispian’s Day speech Henry delivers after spending the night among his troops learning what they think and feel. This is typically delivered as a rallying cry to the masses. It is a rousing speech (We few. We happy few, etc. ). The director has Henry, instead, deliver it to only his generals. It is an interesting and more realistic choice and very emotionally satisfying, even without all the men cheering and running into battle. It comes off as both a leader rallying his men as well as a heart-felt and honest expression of hope, love, and fear. I’ve never seen it done this way, but I expect you will see it again in the future.
Despite all the emotional complexity of Henry, he has one disturbing and, frankly, out of character moment. At the end of the battle at Azincourt, in a fit of frustration and anger at the loss of a friend and what he thinks is the continuation of the fight, orders the death of the prisoners. The fit is believable, but he never laments the haste when moments later he discovers he won the day and the prisoners need not have died. There is no commentary on that action, but it is left to the viewer to absorb and consider.
One of the other nice touches was having Catherine’s scenes in French without subtitles so that you see her learning English and preparing to be auctioned off for peace. The scenes were over-long, but necessary to get you to the final moments of the negotiations where they woo one another in one of the shortest courtships on stage that, we’re supposed to believe, ends in love.
The cycle holds together wonderfully despite having multiple directors. There is a clear thread of emotion and intention that evolves. To get to see these casts creating these stories in a single sweep is also extraordinary and not a chance you will likely get to experience often, if ever again. It is an over 8 hour commitment, but you can spread it out over many nights, as I had to. It is worth it and will give you an appreciation for these histories that you probably haven’t had before. I certainly know my estimation of them has changed.