Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shakespeare, Silver & Exact

One last hurrah for The Hollow Crown, in The Sunday Guardian.


The last couple of months have been an interesting time for Brit-watchers worldwide. The economy continued with its very public meltdown. The republicans declined to be gentlemanly about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and the left were vocal about the social engineering that was taking place in London in the name of the Olympics. Great Britain may not have stuck its fingers in its ears and said, ‘Not listening!’, but a good part of what was called the Cultural Olympiad seemed to be an effort to drown criticism with celebration.

There was a lot of poetry and theatre and despite the success of the Poetry Parnassus, the figure that stood, Parnassus-like at the centre of the Cultural Olympiad was Shakespeare. Versions of Shakespeare’s plays from all over the world are being staged at the Globe as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, including a couple of plays from India. Inevitably, many of these interpretations will be post-colonial readings of the Bard’s work (though so far no one has heard the Daily Mail call these performances plastic-Shakespeare).

It was only to be expected that Britain would wants its own version of Shakespeare – an ‘official’ version, as it were – if not competing, then rising above the competition. BBC2 very cannily commissioned Sam Mendes to produce a four-part series of Shakespeare plays titled The Hollow Crown, covering the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V. This series was telecast on BBC2 through July with three different directors – Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre (directing both parts of Henry IV) and Thea Sharrock – taking charge of the plays.

Though differing somewhat in individual style, the four films are remarkably consistent in tone and world-view. This argues for a very clear brief given to each of the directors to keep their eyes on the title of the series. ‘The Hollow Crown’ comes from Richard II’s soliloquy in the play (III. ii): ‘for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps death his court,’ Richard says. We are to understand through these films that kingship is merely a loan and that death puts an end to all ambitions:

 Ill-weav’d ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
 Is room enough.
                                    Henry IV Part I, V. iv.

Rupert Goold gilds Ben Whishaw’s brilliant Richard in the iconography of St. Sebastian; Richard Eyre makes of Henry IV a private soap opera about fathers and sons (even beginning the second film with a quick episode recap); Thea Sharrock makes – rather cleverly, if controversially – the boy who accompanies Bardolph & Co. to the French wars grow up to become the Chorus.

Death universalises everything but we must remember that of these four plays, Shakespeare called only one of them a Tragedy: Richard II. The other plays were clearly Histories. We could even call them historical fiction, because Shakespeare was writing in response to the politics of the Elizabethan era. He was attempting to create a narrative that answered questions about Britain’s identity as a nation-state – about divine right, inheritance (and the rights of women to inherit kingdoms), the disease of ‘civil blows’ and the uses of ‘foreign quarrels’.

Politics are absolutely central to the plays but The Hollow Crown deliberately drowns the political with the universal. The coup at the heart of Richard II is less important than Richard’s own self-dramatisation – though it could be argued that this was always in the script. The deeply-discomfiting warmongering of Henry V (which Lawrence Olivier unashamedly played up in the 1944 film commissioned by Churchill as part of the war effort) is deflected by a muted performance by Tom Hiddleston as Henry V. In fact, in one scene before the Battle of Agincourt, Sharrock has Henry kneel in a field to pray. He becomes aware of the Boy/Chorus watching him and hastily composes himself as if he knows that history must remember him as the king who never faltered. This is an interesting cinematic moment, almost prescient, because the next time these two characters are together in the same frame it is at Henry’s funeral, which also bookends the film.

It is only in the figure of Henry IV, played by Jeremy Irons, that we get a sense of a beleaguered king beset on all sides by civic unrest, hard-pressed for money, ailing and prone to fits of anger and insomnia. Henry IV may not be a tragic figure like the Richard II and Henry V of this series, but he is certainly made all too human.

There, if you want it, is the series’ politics.

It is hard to read these plays as anything but an examination of national identity but – in these fraught and multicultural times – The Hollow Crown does a very good job of helping Britain forget that. It is no mean achievement to make us watch a king and see everyman.


Why must we care about kings? Why should the kings of another country and another time matter today? Is ‘king’ a codeword for ‘politician’?

Surely, at a time when politicians the world over are navigating the treacherous waters of failing economies, calls for self-determination or secession, and expensive and futile wars, these are questions we must ask? It’s hard not to make politicians out to be the villains of the piece. And never has their rehabilitation been more urgent, if we are to hold on to the template of the nation-state.

It has long been one of the functions of the dramatic arts to provide us with psychological insight into the minds of those we consider villainous. This rehabilitates the ‘villain’ and allows us to feel better about ourselves because of our ability to empathise with the struggles of a divided self. Everyone is humanised by empathy and all the things that divide us – our race, gender, nationality, our politics – are bridged by this impulse to see a bit of ourselves in even the most unsympathetic characters.

Once the Olympics are over, Britain must wake up from its pleasant daydream, of medals won, of happy guests and happier hosts. When it does, it should remember how the dream began: with Danny Boyle choosing Caliban over John of Gaunt to speak for the island nation.


I'm realising that I am so random with my tags that I can't find my own posts when I look for them. One of these days I'm going to have to sit and tag all the ancient posts from the pre-tag  Blogger days...sigh.

So in the spirit of good housekeeping, all The Hollow Crown posts under this one roof:

Richard II (not really a post, I know)


km said...

That's a very useful overview. I just wish you had posted this before you posted reviews of some the individual episodes.

Space Bar said...

km: I couldn't possibly have! I saw the series over four weeks and wrote the reviews as soon as I saw each episode. This I wrote after the whole lot. (You can re-read those, now, in light of this. No?)

km said...

You can re-read those, now, in light of this. No?

Making the reader do the hard work of re-reading and comprehending? What is this, high school?

Just kidding. I *will* re-read the posts. Thanks.