Shakespeare and the Beeb

I do like a bit of Shakespeare, even though I was thoroughly turned off it when doing ‘Julius Caesar’ at school – our teacher had not a clue how to ‘teach’ Shakespeare and made it as dry and boring as cardboard!

It was a quite a while later before I started to appreciate Shakespeare – I think my first proper experience of it was Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Henry V’. Opened my eyes to how Shakespeare should be enjoyed – by watching it performed as opposed to reading it. I haven’t seen any plays performed ‘live’ on stage, only films – ‘Hamlet’ (with Mel Gibson); ‘Much Ado About Nothing (again, with Kenneth Branagh); ‘Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino – that was an eye-opener of a performance; I was amazed that by the end of the film, he’d succeeded in making me feel sorry for Shylock!)

The plays I’m usually drawn to are the more light-hearted ones … maybe still remembering the tedium that was poor ‘Julius Caesar’! But when the BBC announced they were going to show Shakespeare’s tetralogy – Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V under the heading 'Hollow Crown' – I thought I’d give these ‘serious’ ones a go.

When the BBC ‘do’ Shakespeare, they’re, more often than not, pretty good at it. Well, am I glad I took the time to watch them. Wow!! My Shakespeare-appreciation is now on an all-time high! The performances were, across the board, brilliant. I’d love to blather on about all of them but that would go on for pages and might just put too much pressure on blogger ;o) So I’ll limit myself to the main characters …

In the first one, 'Richard II', Ben Whishaw portrayed Richard II as a bit of an effeminate monarch who didn’t have much of a clue of how things were in the ‘real world’; he honestly, truly believed in his God-given right to rule and thought everything else would just fall into place. But by the end, when he handed his crown to Henry Bolingbroke, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Rory Kinnear as Henry was a masterclass in subtlety; he delivered his lines quietly, with conviction and even when he didn’t have anything to say, his demeanour said it all … like the moment when he realised that he could actually be king. Patrick Stewart was John of Gaunt – splendid! David Morrissey as Northumberland – wish he’d had more screen time, also James Purefoy as Thomas Mowbray. And David Suchet as York … he’s so ingrained in my mind as Poirot, it always comes as a pleasant surprise to see him in such a different role.

The next play, 'Henry IV', was also peopled with fantastic actors – Jeremy Irons, Julie Walters, Simon Russell Beale, Alun Armstrong – it seems almost churlish to pick a favourite … but I will – Tom Hiddleston. I’ve only seen him on the big-screen, mainly as Loki in ‘Thor’ and ‘The Avengers’; I found his handling of Shakespeare most enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he persuades his father that he’s more than a hopeless, carousing layabout who can be depended upon to put down the rebellion. Jeremy Irons as Henry IV reminded me what a great actor he still is; you could feel his pain and frustration as he tried to deal with his wastrel son, a rebellion, his ill-health and his constant worry about the consequences of having seized the throne, totally bypassing the ‘divine right’ bit. Here, it was Alun Armstrong in the role of Northumberland, with his real-life son, Joe, as Henry Percy or Hotspur; with his volatile moods, he was most convincing as the ‘all-praised knight’.

Part 2 was quite emotional, starting with Northumberland’s grief on hearing of his son’s death. The aging king, almost physically weighed down by his worries, finally realising that his son is a worthy successor – I confess to having a bit of a weep when he died – and the prince literally becoming King Henry V, transforming from fun-loving young man to mature leader.

And finally, 'Henry V'. Whereas I remember Branagh’s ‘Henry V’ being more like a war-film, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech so rousing, I wanted to stand and cheer (I may well have done!), this production was more ambiguous. This Henry’s words were more open to interpretation, like he himself wasn’t too sure what he believed in. And yet, it was believable, a king having doubts, wondering if he was doing the right thing in staking his claim, leading his pitifully small army against the much larger, fresher French army. His St. Crispin’s Day speech was delivered to his immediate officers, mainly his kinsmen, not to the whole army, and it was all the more poignant. Later, his somewhat clumsy courtship of the French princess, Catherine, being aware that he was more soldier than lover, was utterly charming. And at the end of all that, to be rudely reminded that this king died a mere 7 years after Agincourt, felled by dysentery!! That left me feeling sad …

Anyway, despite the limited budget, I thought the battle scenes were realistic enough, focussing more on the personal, close-up fights. And from a horse-lover point of view, I was well and truly satisfied – the horse Henry V rode into battle was super-gorgeous and there was at least one Friesian that featured in the other 3 programmes …