TV REVIEW: The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part One: A Thoroughly Modern Monmouth

Having been a fan of Henry IV Part 1 for many years now, I feel obliged to present my own addition to Becky’s already ample review.

You’ve already read Becky’s review (and if you haven’t, go do so here) and so assuming you’ve got the Henry basics down by now, I’m just going to jump straight in.

Crucial to this tale of a wayward prince’s return to honour in defence of his father, is the Bard’s slick use of contrast. Much like a modern day domestic soap opera, no sooner have we settled into one group dynamic, be it that of the court, the rebels or the tavern, than some imaginary narrator figure clicks their fingers and we’re propelled headlong into a whole new atmosphere, usually one the total antithesis of the place we’ve just left.

The play just wouldn’t work without it, and Richard Eyre’s version captures it beautifully. I’m not usually one to praise scene shortening in adaptations, primarily because it means I then feel the need to explain the missing bits to everyone else in the near vicinity, but here, the editing marries the different plotlines together in a way which does not take away from the original pattern, but adds to it. Moving slyly from scene to scene, Eyre’s adaptation catapults Hal’s coming of age (and sobriety) story into something more epic, clever, heartfelt and ultimately more modern than I’ve seen this play before.

The magic of cinema, as it were, and as Becky has already mentioned,  allows it a bigger scale than previously, the real terror and grit of war coming across in the frost bitten, blood soaked battle scenes. The wardrobe and set decisions fit the brief, too. In fact I’d like to take my hat off immediately to whoever had the idea of putting Hal in a vaguely Elizabethan leather jacket, and you can almost smell the beer from the tavern scenes and feel the laughter reverberating from the walls.

It all feels generously updated, cinematic and well thought out.

Ultimately though, it’s the performances in this production that make it feel as thoroughly modern as it has long deserved to be.  Eyre’s shift in focus from the history of the play to the relationships within it puts to bed my one traditional criticism of this play- the slightly two dimensional nature of its main characters.  All too frequently they are concepts and symbols for directors to play with before they are people, and we can only guess at their inner world.  Not so here. Eyre’s cut and paste approach to the longer speeches comes into its own, and we’re given much needed proof that there’s more in the heads of Hal and Falstaff than big ideas, ego and booze.

Speaking of Hal, kicking the notable performances list off in style is Tom Hiddleston’s Prince. I’ve long thought Harry Monmouth the original lovable rogue, and Hiddlseton shows him off for exactly what he is. He’s sexy, suave and self-centred but with enough of a prankster’s cheeky streak to make you fall head over heels for Shakespeare’s most dapper royal regardless. Here he’s a joy to watch, with Hiddleston’s inclusive and charismatic performance making you not only want to be a part of his gang, but really feel that you’re in on the joke, whichever one it is at the time, every step of the way.
Eyre also goes to town on the gleeful closeness and camaraderie of Hal and best pal Poins (one of our beloved Unsung Heroes), who, through a combination of careful direction and well-timed close-ups, is finally brought to the foreground not as a plot device, but as an accomplice in his own right. (Hooray!)  

 The pivotal relationship between Hal and Falstaff is just as spot on, with the score brought in at key moments to highlight their tragic co-dependence. It’s not hugely subtle, but it does the job, and again, they all feel like real people you could meet down your local of a Friday night, rather than stuffed up Received Pronunciation cut outs. 
 Hostpur, I had a few initial problems with. Apologies, Becky. Brilliant though Joe Armstrong’s performance is, I just didn’t feel the parallels between himself and fellow Harry, Prince Hal, were as obvious as they should be for the play’s intricate design to be seen at its best.

But then I decided that I’d missed the point. It does happen, from time to time. I decided that Eyre’s Hotspur wasn’t an obvious parallel, not in error, but precisely because he wasn’t supposed to be. You wouldn’t get two similar looking kids, both born of power, born on the exact same today and mirroring each other’s stance and booming voices in a modern drama or in reality for that matter, and so you don’t here. Hotspur suitably rants and raves enough to do his name proud, but again he’s a character in his own right, with his own motivations and merriments- not just there as a mirror image of his adversary.   

Oh and Julie Walters? A born Mistress Quickly, a fantastic casting coup and a great excuse to have her sat in a pub with an equally grubby looking Maxine Peake.

The effect of all of the above is that this production feels more like an action film, the story of which could have been thought up last week, not an adaptation of a play from four hundred years ago, based on an even older story. Its blend of domestic drama, friendship and battle drama is alive and well here, and as a result we can empathise with its characters and see ourselves and our friends in them more than we ever have.

It’s gritty, edgy and even tragic, but most of all it’s just gloriously good fun.

And you can’t say fairer than that for a play set in a tavern. 

- Jen

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