Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Hollow Crown - Shakespeare

I was able to watch the 'Henriad' (Richard II, both Henry IVs and Henry V) through the British television series 'The Hollow Crown'.  The series came out in 2012, though I never heard of it until earlier this year.  Overall, I thought that the series was very good.  Each play got its own treatment, each about 2-2.5 hours long.  There was some editing and a small amount of juggling of scenes but everything made sense and the story was well told.  I would recommend the series to watch or buy.  (I've seen it on sale for less than $20.) 
I did want to go through some of the good and bad stuff.
  • The story telling is very well done throughout.  In some small ways, Shakespearean language is foreign to modern English and we are best served when some effort is made to bridge the gap.  The Hollow Crown did this admirably.  (Plus, the DVDs offer closed captioning, so the viewer can read as well as listen.) 
  • The last three all use the same cast in the same parts.  When Prince Hal becomes Henry V, the viewer has no problem following along.  Hal's roguish companions are also constant, so we get to know them well over hours of viewing.
  • There should be some prize for simply putting the two Henry IVs together.  Neither one works as well on its own.  Having them (and Henry V) in one place makes the story more like that of a min-series than a set of stand alones.
  • The settings all look good to the period involved.  Big, stone castles and wooded countryside.  The Boar's Head tavern looks right, as does the costuming.
  • There are flashes of brilliance in the acting.  Patrick Stewart gets the wonderful 'sceptered isle' speech in Richard II.  Benjamin Whishaw is simply phenomenal as Richard II.  I got literal goose bumps.
What doesn't work as well?  These are smaller complaints than the praises.
  • I wasn't really taken by Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff.  This was a very rare case of the lines reading funnier to me from the book than they did while acted.  Falstaff is a difficult target, as a likeable man who does some awful things but the audience should nevertheless feel for him.  He came across as a bit dark here and I don't think it worked.
  • Jeremy Irons is the older Henry IV and he does the best he can with a fairly thankless role.  Tom Hiddleston is Prince Hal/Henry V and he does well with the ton of material given him.  Not great, but well.  There were spots, like the St Crispins Day speech, that underwhelmed a tad.
  • Most of the Hollow Crown looks good but it falls down in the battle scenes.  The English expedition to France looks like about 50 men in total.  The French force opposing them looks like about 100.  I'm sure this was simply a budget limitation but I found the very small armies to be distracting.  (This was true of each of the battles.  The battle that ended Henry IV part 1 looked like a fight between a few dozen men.)  I wish they had found a way to finesse this somehow.
All in all, I liked it a lot.  The history plays are not easy, in part because of the twisty plots and different names for each person.  The Hollow Crown made these four much easier to follow.
Later this year, there will be a sequel of sorts, which will cover the Henry VI plays and Richard III.  It sounds like they will condense the three Henrys to two plays, but I may have that wrong.  I look forward to seeing them.

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