Do you moue and roll your eyes when someone mentions Shakespeare? (If so, then I don’t know why you read this blog.) But if you do, if you think Shakespeare is nothing but a collection of thee’s and thou’s, if you find it all just stuffy and boring and completely incomprehensible, then I have the perfect entrée for you.
As the centerpiece of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the UK (in the form of the BBC) have created a new version of Shakespeare’s royal tetralogy collectively known as The Hollow Crown, and it is wonderful. More than that, though, it is accessible, it is totally comprehensible (both in plot and in language), and it is a joy.
The Hollow Crown comprises four of Shakespeare’s histories–Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V–and in these you will not find any star-crossed lovers, any intricate plots. You won’t find women disguised as men nor any twins separated at birth. You’ll find no trickery gone awry and no semblance of death. None of that, here.
In The Hollow Crown, you’ll only find clean lines of action, kings trying to rule, subjects in revolt. You’ll find wenching and drinking, smooching and smiting, usurpations, successions, and war.
What you’ll also find in these plays is the finest acting ever captured for these plays, exquisite cinematography, and the most beautiful art direction I’ve seen in a Shakespearean play.
Ben Whishaw plays Richard II, the young and troubled (some say mentally disturbed) king who ruled at the end of the 1300s. Deposing him is Henry IV, played by Jeremy Irons, and who snarls and rages his way through two plays, battling an insurrection from the north and bemoaning the wastrel ways of his eldest son and heir. That heir (played by Tom Hiddleston) debauches his way through his father’s Parts I and II in the company of one of the finest portrayals of Falstaff you’ll ever see (gifted to us by Simon Russell Beale), only to turn on his former comrades-in-drink to become the redoubtable Henry V.
Throw in a set of supporting casts that include Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Julie Walters, Clémence Poésy, Alun Armstrong, Iain Glen, Lindsay Duncan, Rory Kinnear, and dozens of others, and you have a collection well worth your time.
Watching these plays, you’ll be surprised at how natural the language sounds. There is a lot of unmetered prose in these plays; characters speak like people, not like poets here, and it makes everything clear and easy to understand. True, there’s some wonderful poetry within them as well, but even the metered verse sounds conversational, as delivered by this outstanding cast.
Right now, The Hollow Crown is only available on European DVD (Regions 2 & 4) which only crazy-eyed Anglophiles like me will purchase (it’s only £9.75 at Amazon.co.uk!), but not to worry. This fall, it’s coming to PBS, so keep an eye out for it.