Heavy heads and hollow crowns

When I was at Uni studying (and later teaching) English Literature, the BBC Shakespeares were spoken of in hushed tones as the most boring thing this side of a Romanian stop-motion remake of Solaris dubbed by a narcoleptic with a speech impediment. Want to make your students hate Shakespeare as much as the average UK pupil does on leaving school? Have them watch the BBC Shakespeares! In spite of actors that have proven to know their way around a iambic pentameter or two, these television versions of Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works made from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s were complete duds, dramatically speaking, at least according to English Department legend.

Fast forward to 2012, the year that Brits try to put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’ with the help of Sir Simon Rattle, Rowan Atkinson and a skydiving Queen Elizabeth. Two years before the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and produced by Sam Mendes (the erstwhile Mr. Kate Winslet and director of the upcoming Bond flick Skyfall), the BBC got together an impressive set of actors, including Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and a guy last seen having sexual intercourse with a pig, for big budget TV versions of the four history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2: Henry Harder and Henry V: The Sequeling. And while I can’t speak for the horrors of the earlier BBC Shakespeares, these four TV versions definitely don’t have to hang their heads in shame – as teachers the world over will be ecstatic to hear, since they can fill two to three school lessons with the watching of one of these.

The Hollow Crown, as the quartet was named after what may be the most famous (and rightly so) monologue in Richard II, was fairly entertaining to watch, though very much improved when the subtitles kicked in – being able to read Shakespeare’s lines while listening to the actors definitely helps my comprehension. Not perfect, and some of the character choices were weird: does Richard II make more sense by being turned into the most queenly king since Marlowe’s Edward II, with Whishaw in the title role channelling both Gloria Swanson and Katherine Hepburn? Also, having seen Michael Gambon as a very funny, charming and ultimately poignant Falstaff, I found Simon Russell Beale’s take on the character too low-key to make his relationship with Prince Hal all that credible and his eventual fate as moving as it ought to be.

My main two bones of contention with Mendes’ BBC Shakespeare have to do with the language, though:

1) Too many of the actors try to make the iambic pentameter sound like regular, realistic TV dialogues – and that just don’t fly. Ignore that Shakespeare’s language is stylised and you end up with clumsy, overly earnest delivery that actually comes across as less realistic rather than more. Accept the language for what it is, play the metre, and don’t keep making short pauses to indicate, “I’m thinking about what words to use here!” and the language comes alive. Actors are often told to fresh-mint the language, to speak it as the words came to them that very minute – and that’s true… to an extent. Fresh-minting Shakespeare’s words doesn’t require an actor to stop, start, hesitate, wait a beat, continue, pause some more. Tom Hiddleston, whose acting I otherwise enjoyed a lot, tended to be particularly guilty of this.

2) Shakespeare tends to have his stage directions hidden in plain sight – that is, he puts them in the lines. “Why look’st thou so fearfully and pale?” reminds the actor it’s addressed at that he should look scared, for instance, in case he’d forgotten. (And yes, that line is made up, but the plays are full of similar – though undoubtedly less clumsy – lines.) The lines in effect are prompts, both for the actors and for the audience – if something cannot be shown fully, speak it so the audience can imagine it. It’s one of the elements that, if done well, engages the audience more fully, asking them in effect to become part of the mis en scene: they’re props masters as well as stage designers, filling in the blanks with their imagination as prompted by the actors. The four Hollow Crown parts, as is so much TV, are done in a realistic style, showing what is shown, from armies (although, admittedly, the armies don’t have the CGIed numbers of the Battle of Helm’s Deep) to castles to ships on the ocean – yet the plays aren’t stripped of such lines, so we end up both seeing the armies, castles and ships while being told about them, rendering too many of Shakespeare’s lines redundant. To my mind, the productions should either have dared to veer from their somewhat restricting realism at times or they should have dared to cut the language to a much larger extent. As it is, it’s difficult not to come away from these films thinking, rather unfairly, “Gosh, that Shakespeare guy must’ve been paid by the word! You could’ve left out half that stuff!” This is especially apparent when it comes to the Chorus in Henry V, who quite literally tells the audience repeatedly, “We can’t show all of this, so I’m describing it for you to imagine!” while the images on the screen showed you exactly those things. They tried to make it work with some sleight of hand involving one of the peripheral characters, but the trick only served to highlight the redundancy of it all. Want to do a realistic made-for-TV Shakespeare? Accept that you’ve stripped a third of the lines of their purpose and cut them.

In spite of these two things, which probably bug me more because otherwise the productions were smart and well crafted, The Hollow Crown was fascinating for the impressive cast, but it mostly felt like proof of concept. If they look critically at what worked and what didn’t – which I hope they will – and learn from these things, whatever follows this historical quartet might end up quite glorious.

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