Peter Davies

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Peter Davies

Grin­ning at his Pomp

In this quater-cen­te­nary of Shake­speare’s death, it was in­evitable that the most keenly an­tic­i­pated ex­am­i­na­tion of the great drama­tist’s ca­pac­ity to rivet mod­ern audiences would be The Hol­low Crown: Wars of the Roses, BBC2’s version of the Henry VI tril­ogy and their suc­ces­sor Richard III. These plays bring Shake­speare’s sur­vey of English his­tory to the verge of the Tu­dor age in which he wrote them.

Stage ver­sions of Shake­speare, of all shapes and sizes, have not been and will not be in short sup­ply this year, in ei­ther Lon­don or the re­gions. But tele­vi­sion promised to draw an au­di­ence of arm­chair view­ers whose sheer mag­ni­tude would dwarf fig­ures for theatre at­ten­dance. A mil­lion for the first night was whis­pered as a pos­si­bil­ity. And such a fig­ure, it was hoped, would in­clude many who might nor­mally lack the im­pe­tus, not to say the fi­nances, to ven­ture to see Shake­speare on stage.

Yet in po­lit­i­cally and so­cially frac­tured Bri­tain, the BBC faced a tough task in this bold ven­ture. In that now seem­ingly far-off sum­mer of love, 2012, in a UK buoyed up by na­tional con­fi­dence, kind­li­ness and a spirit of suc­cess re­flected in Lon­don’s Olympic Games, its Hol­low Crown I, con­sist­ing of Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V, had been an out­stand­ing suc­cess. Its glit­ter­ing cast and in­spired direc­tors (re­spec­tively Ru­pert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Shar­rock) seemed to give the lie for­ever to any lin­ger­ing no­tion that Shake­speare on screen was some­how dumb­ing down the prod­uct.

It would, in any event, have been a hard act to fol­low. Per­for­mances such as Ben Whishaw’s Richard II, Si­mon Rus­sell Beale’s Fal­staff and Tom Hid­dle­ston’s Harry, to sin­gle out but a hand­ful, set in­di­vid­ual bench­marks. But the prob­lems for Hol­low Crown II’s direc­tor were com­pounded by the in­tractable na­ture of the ma­te­rial pro­vided by Shake­speare him­self.

The direc­tors of Hol­low Crown I had held all the aces. Richard II con­tains, in the mouth of its epony­mous pro­tag­o­nist, some of Shake­speare’s most soar­ing lyric verse. It al­ways feels like some­thing scarcely less than a mir­a­cle that, in a few short scenes, its au­thor can trans­form an ir­ra­tional, vin­dic­tive, thor­oughly un­like­able crea­ture such as Richard, into a Man of Sor­rows who stirs our pro­found­est pity. From petu­lant boy he be­comes the man who now ut­ters those mem­o­rable lines that have come to stand for the cruel vi­cis­si­tudes of power – and which give this un­der­tak­ing its ti­tle:

within the hol­low crown That rounds the mor­tal tem­ples of a king Keeps Death his court, and there the an­tic sits, Scoff­ing his state and grin­ning at his pomp.

By the time we get to Henry IV, Part 2, Shake­speare’s verse and his som­bre in­sights into life be­neath the sur­face of mer­ri­ment feel like those of a cre­ative spirit stand­ing on the verge of the great tragedies of his ma­tu­rity. Fal­staff, no longer the clown who has en­ter­tained us for so long, painfully faces his mor­tal­ity: ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me re­mem­ber mine end.’ And, from the mouth of such an in­signif­i­cant char­ac­ter as Si­lence, we have the heart-rend­ing ut­ter­ance of poverty of ex­pec­ta­tion when he is asked to ac­count for a rare mo­ment of mirth that comes to him in his cups: ‘Who, I? I have been merry twice and once ere now.’ Shake­speare finds the deep­est pathos in the most un­likely ves­sels.

The direc­tor of Hol­low Crown II had no ma­te­rial of this cal­i­bre to work with. Set later in time than the events of Hol­low Crown I, in the civil wars that succeed the death of Henry V, the plays were nev­er­the­less com­posed a good few years ear­lier. Richard III, Shake­speare’s first ‘real’ play ex­cepted, they have all the hall­marks of pren­tice work, and there is much ev­i­dence of col­lab­o­ra­tion. Bound far too closely to the chron­i­cles from which they cull their contents, they demon­strate none of the dra­matic flair we as­so­ci­ate with Shake­speare. Much of their di­a­logue is bare of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­est; the verse of­ten crude and clunky. They con­tain none of those in­trigu­ing mi-

nor char­ac­ters whose aperçus at un­ex­pected mo­ments give Shake­speare’s plays their in­com­pa­ra­ble sense of lived life. They al­most all lack a per­son­al­ity of enough di­men­sion to an­chor our sym­pa­thies.

None of this de­terred direc­tor Do­minic Cooke. He rec­og­nized that tur­bu­lent times called for a vi­o­lent ap­proach to di­rect­ing. An age of chaos in which those as­pir­ing to power, how­ever du­bi­ous their le­git­i­macy and brief their te­nancy, took as their guid­ing prin­ci­ple ‘La raison du plus fort est tou­jours la meilleure’ would be pre­sented on screen as such. Skir­mish and pitched bat­tle, con­ducted in mud and shout­ing, and frac­tious con­fronta­tions at a king’s court dan­ger­ously peo­pled by grudg­ingly def­er­en­tial no­bles armed to the teeth, set the first episode off at the rush. Cooke was wise not to waste our time plod­ding through the dross of the three Henry VI plays as sep­a­rate episodes, but tele­scoped them into two. Some­thing had to go, and that was the Jack Cade re­bel­lion. One reg­is­tered that only ab­sently; it cer­tainly didn’t un­der­mine the ar­chi­tec­ture of the whole.

So­phie Okonedo made a strik­ing Queen Mar­garet, ruth­less as one might ex­pect of a woman hauled over from France to be King Henry’s wife and bed­fel­low, pro­vided that she is al­ways avail­able to oc­cupy that of Suf­folk (Ja­son Watkins), who has trav­elled to ar­range the mat­ter for his sov­er­eign. Ex­cept that, here, Suf­folk wasn’t Suf­folk, a ma­jor char­ac­ter in the first two parts of Shake­speare’s Henry VI, and in his­tory, but had mor­phed into Ex­eter (Ben Miles), a rel­a­tively mi­nor one, who was given most of his lines. Why? It was ir­ri­tat­ing be­cause un­nec­es­sary. But of course it didn’t seem to mat­ter. The mur­der of Glouces­ter (Hugh Bon­neville) in the Tower, his screams of agony ring­ing out in coun­ter­point to the Queen’s gasps of plea­sure as she il­lic­itly cou­ples with Ex­eter/Suf­folk, both episodes pre­sented on screen simultaneously, was of a piece with Cooke’s cun­ningly ef­fec­tive di­rec­tion.

By this time Hol­low Crown II had made its point. Its first night, in May, was re­port­edly seen by more than a mil­lion peo­ple, ap­par­ently putting it up there with Ri­d­ley Scott’s Prometheus over on Chan­nel 4, and ex­ceed­ing its 2012 pre­de­ces­sor. And yet … we were still await­ing the en­trance of the su­per­star Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as the epony­mous Richard III of Hol­low

Crown’s third episode. I’d ad­mired im­mensely his Ti­et­jens in BBC 2’s version of Ford Ma­dox Ford’s novel Pa­rade’s End. But has he some way to go as a Shake­spearean ac­tor? His Ham­let at the Bar­bican last year was no more than plau­si­ble, though ad­mit­tedly the play was ham­pered by Lyn­d­sey Tay­lor’s per­verse di­rec­tion. And now here, one felt he was over di­rected. The hunch­back’s phys­i­cal de­for­mi­ties did not have to be so over­done. He did not quite come to terms with the sheer venom that the role de­mands. The king’s harsh dis­missal of the pleas of his sur­ro­gate in vil­lainy, Buck­ing­ham (Ben Daniels), for due re­ward – ‘I am not in the giv­ing vein to­day’ – should cut like the blow from a Rus­sian pe­nal knout. It didn’t.

Tele­vi­sion did not have a monopoly on screened Shake­speare dur­ing this sea­son of com­mem­o­ra­tion. Lon­don­ers, and vis­i­tors to Lon­don, had al­ready had the op­por­tu­nity to im­merse them­selves in the Globe Theatre’s ‘Com­plete Walk’, and dip into all or any of Shake­speare’s plays, as they wanted. On thirty-seven screens sited along two-and-a-half miles of the Thames from St Thomas’ Hospi­tal Gar­dens to Pot­ters Fields by Tower Bridge a se­ries of con­tin­u­ously rolling short films, each made by a dif­fer­ent direc­tor, ex­plored as­pects of all the plays over a week­end in April. These in­cluded key scenes ei­ther shot afresh on lo­ca­tion, taken from Globe pro­duc­tions, or re­cov­ered from his­toric film archives.

The rev­e­la­tion in the heart of this imag­i­na­tive ven­ture was not so much its treat­ment of the al­ready well-known and much-ad­mired – but its of­fer­ings of glimpses into the lesser-known parts of Shake­speare’s oeu­vre. Henry VI ben­e­fited im­mensely from this thought­ful treat­ment. In a bit­ter breeze whip­ping along the South Bank we were trans­ported to a mov­ing scene of grief on the bat­tle­field at Tow­ton in North York­shire, where a fa­ther cra­dles in his arms the body of the son he has killed by ac­ci­dent, watched by the hap­less King Henry (Alex Wald­man), on whom it fi­nally dawns that his vac­il­la­tion has led to such an out­come.

A few screens along, as we crouched un­der the Golden Ju­bilee Bridge in a shower of rain, we were thrust into the very dif­fer­ent ethos of con­tem­po­rary Spi­tal­fields, where Jack Cade (Neil Maskell) led his re­volt against a back­drop of twenty first cen­tury Lon­don streets. Fur­ther on, in the wind-

swept Bernie Spain Gar­dens be­hind the Oxo Tower, it was the turn of Fal­staff (Toby Jones). In an in­ge­nious com­pi­la­tion of speeches rang­ing over the two parts of Henry IV and filmed en­tirely in South­wark’s Ge­orge Inn, Jones bril­liantly ex­pounded Fal­staff’s phi­los­o­phy of sur­vival, as he lurched his way in search of the next drink.

It was in­tense fare. I took the en­tire two days to fin­ish the Com­plete Walk. I ended it an un­doubt­edly wiser – if colder – stu­dent of Shake­speare.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.