“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare has King Henry IV of England tell us toward the end of that usurper’s reign. That may be true, but “The Hollow Crown” quartet of films that begins tonight on PBS (NPT 8 p.m. in Nashville) with Richard II has no such worries.
The sharply focused storytelling on display in these four features packs the great playwright’s punch while giving us the scope the Bard notes in Henry V when mentioning the physical (though not imaginative) limitations of theater: “Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?/Or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt?” It’s one of the finest cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s work ever.
The movies were first shown in the UK during the “Cultural Olympiad” tied to the 2012 London Olympic Games; now happily we get to see them on this side of the pond. The critically-acclaimed series was honored with BAFTA Television Awards for Ben Whishaw as Richard II (Leading Actor) and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff (Supporting Actor) as well as a BAFTA Craft Award for Original Television Music (Stephen Warbeck) and other prizes.
It’s probably not surprising that these films have been well-received; take Shakespeare’s enthralling text and the behind-the-scenes know-how of such figures as executive producers Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and Gareth Neame (Downton Abbey), add directors like former National Theatre Artistic Director Richard Eyre, new Almeida Theatre head Rupert Goold and former Southwark Playhouse leader Thea Sharrock, then stir in many of Britain’s finest actors. It’s a likely recipe for artistic success.
Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V cover a tumultuous medieval period from 1398 to 1422, starting with the fall of one king and ending with the death of another. Those monarchs include the self-indulgent Richard II (Whishaw, now also known as James Bond’s new Q); his cousin Bolingbroke (the ever-versatile Rory Kinnear), who overthrows Richard and rules as a guilt-ridden Henry IV (Jeremy Irons, who seems born to play such roles); and Hal (Tom Hiddleston, understandably very un-Loki-like in this role), who throws aside his wastrel ways when he ascends the throne as Henry V.
The actors playing these English rulers certainly anchor the films with regal performances (you can catch some snippets of those portrayals in the videos below this article), but they are matched by the fine support they receive from Beale (a Falstaff for this or any other age; take a look at this clip), Patrick Stewart (John of Gaunt may not last long in Richard II, but watch this) and Joe Armstrong (a fire-breathing Hotspur) as well as Julie Walters, Anton Lesser, Alun Armstrong, Michelle Dockery, David Suchet, Geraldine Chaplin, Paterson Joseph, Lambert Wilson, David Morrissey, Richard Griffiths (in one of his last roles as the Duke of Burgundy) and a host of other very talented players.
As with other entries in the Shakespearean canon there’s plenty with which to play, including the relationships fathers and sons have (or don’t have), where one’s loyalties should lie, the nature of leadership and whether attaining honor is a worthy goal or a self-sacrificing – and possibly vainglorious – trap. I would advise watching these films more than once, not because they’re difficult to understand – “The Hollow Crown” is accessible even without knowing the plays beforehand – but because they’re so rich with meaning.
“The Hollow Crown” is couched in production values that lend an air of authenticity to all proceedings, from the use of appropriate locations around the UK to the gritty realism of Danny Cohen, Ben Smithard and Michael McDonough’s cinematography as well as Odile Dicks-Mireaux and Annie Symons’ striking period costumes and the I-can-feel-the-castle-drafts production designs of Andrew McAlpine, Donal Woods and Alan MacDonald.
The perfect pitch of those production trappings frees us to focus on what really matters – the master class on the human condition with which the Bard has engaged generation after generation. Yes, different directors and actors filmed four plays that vary in tone and quality, but in this endeavor it’s a harmonious whole. That’s what makes “The Hollow Crown” series so powerful – all of these actors and artisans have created a seamless and scintillating Shakespearean symphony.
The Great Performances presentation of “The Hollow Crown: Richard II” airs today (Sept. 20) in Nashville at 8 p.m. on Nashville Public Television (available over-the-air on 8.1, on Comcast Channel 1008 and Charter Cable channel 708). Presentations of Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V will air on successive weeks; check the NPT schedule for more details. Click here for PBS schedules around the country.
*Photos by Nick Briggs and Joss Barratt courtesy Neal Street Productions.