Declaring a love of Shakespeare has long been a shortcut to gaining cultural credibility. But any mug can fake a knowledge of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. How much more impressive it would be to casually opine "I think his Henriad tetralogy is divine!"
The Henriad comprises four of Shakespeare's history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Part II, and Henry V. Henry V is well known and frequently produced, including Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film. This lavishly-produced series provides an opportunity to explore the other, lesser-known plays in the sequence (which is as close as Shakespeare fans get to the excitement of a 'new work').
Richard II was utterly convinced of his divine right to rule, which led to him behave like a bit of a stinker at times. The play charts his downfall at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, who is crowned Henry IV. It is from one of Richard's speeches that the series takes its name:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for 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,
Deprived of his throne, Richard is like a confused child, crying, roaring and wheedling in a futile attempt to get his way. As Richard, Ben Wishaw gives a performance that is haunting (I mean that quite literally - it hovered around me like a ghost for days afterwards). Patrick Stewart and David Suchet (sans Poirot moustache) offer fine support, alongside a host of Britain's finest actors.
Henry IV leaps forward to the end of Bolingbroke's reign. Jeremy Irons brings his usual gravitas to the role of Henry, tormented by political enemies and a guilty conscience ("uneasy lies the head that wears the crown"). His son, also Henry but known as Hal, is a bit of a lad, hanging out in taverns with a bawdy crowd including Sir John Falstaff. When rebels rise against Henry, young Hal receives a stern 'wake up to yourself' lecture from his dad, and proceeds to lead the troops into battle to save the crown.
If your only exposure to Tom Hiddleston thus far has been his role as Loki in the Avengers, and lately as Taylor Swift's latest squeeze, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that he is an accomplished classical actor. In Henry IV and V he brilliantly conveys Hal's transition from reckless roisterer to noble king. He is equally effective as the cheeky playboy, fierce warrior and awkward suitor of Catherine of France, and his delivery of the famous St Crispin's Day speech had me reaching for the tissues.
Many actors deliver Shakespeare as if they are reading a sacred text (call me a heathen, but I always found Laurence Olivier a bit hammy). In these productions, the actors speak their lines as if Shakespearean English is their native tongue, with all the natural pacing and inflection that we hear in modern speech. Even the meaning of obscure words or puzzling phrases becomes clear with this naturalistic delivery. This approach highlights not only the consummate skill of the actors, but the sheer brilliance of Shakespeare's writing, revealing more fully his subtle humour, sharp observations and complex character development.
In an effort to prove Shakespeare's timeless relevance, productions have transplanted the plays into a wide range of eras and settings. It has been so long since I have seen a production set in medieval times that the effect was startlingly refreshing. The costumes and historical settings are marvelous, and the battle scenes horrifyingly brutal.
Earlier this year a second series was aired. The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses covers Henry VI, Parts I, II and III, and Richard III, and stars Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench and Michael Gambon, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the nefarious* Richard III. I can't wait to get my hands on that one!
* Historians still argue over whether Richard III was a treacherous villain, responsible for the murder of the Princes in The Tower, or a decent man, slandered in history by the Tudors who overthrew him (having read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time I lean towards the 'Richard was framed' camp). The recent discovery of his body suggests that he suffered from a scoliosis, rather than a disfiguring hunchback. Notwithstanding all of this, Shakespeare portrays him as an evil monster, and I'm sure Cumberbatch tackles the role with malevolent fervour.