The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0449 Monday, 16 September 2013
Date: Monday, September 16, 2013
Subject: PBS/BBC Retells Shakespearean History with The Hollow Crown and Interview
Footsteps of Kings (Like Olivier and Gielgud)
‘The Hollow Crown,’ on PBS, Retells Shakespearean History
September 12, 2013
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote some 400 years ago, and although crowns are far less abundant now, uneasy heads are everywhere on the world stage. So the audience for the new series “The Hollow Crown” should understand exactly what Henry IV of England means when he speaks that famous line. That, at least, is the hope of the BBC and PBS, the co-producers of the four-part series, which was shown in Britain last year and is to be broadcast on “Great Performances” in the United States, beginning on Friday, September 20.
Sam Mendes, the director who first pitched the series several years ago and serves as one of its executive producers, had the idea, he said, “to do over the BBC Shakespeares that had been done in the ’70s, but this time to do them as real films, on locations and with large numbers of extras, rather than as the weird hybrids they were then.” (Those earlier productions were shot primarily on sets, with occasional awkward forays outdoors.) The relatively action-packed history plays, he said, were “very well suited to film,” and doing them in that way for the small screen was a concept whose time had come. “We live in a world now where you could argue that long, series television is the state of the art of storytelling,” he said.
Given the tradition of British actors taking on the great Shakespearean roles, the stakes were high for the actors playing the broody 14th- and 15th-century monarchs in these ambitious productions of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V.” Speaking with the actors — Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Rory Kinnear as the young Henry IV, Jeremy Irons as the older Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Henry V — you feel the weight of their responsibility, and each has a strategy for dealing with it.
When Mr. Irons tackles any part, he said, “I like to feel I’m a test pilot, trying to see if this thing will fly.” He paused. “Well, of course with Shakespeare you know it flies, but I still try to forget that anyone else has ever played the role.” Mr. Whishaw, stepping into a role that has been interpreted by, among others, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Fiennes, Fiona Shaw, Kevin Spacey and Mr. Irons, relieves the pressure by reminding himself, philosophically, of T .S. Eliot’s idea that with Shakespeare we can never be right, but can only “from time to time change our way of being wrong.” Mr. Whishaw said, “You’re never going to crack a role like this completely, and because there’s no way you’re going to be definitive, I just bring to it as much as I can of myself, at this point in my life.”
Mr. Hiddleston has perhaps the most conspicuous royal shoes to fill, thanks to the memorable film performances of Henry V by Laurence Olivier (in 1944) and Kenneth Branagh (in 1989). “I knew that people would make comparisons,” he said. “But I knew, somehow, that I’d find my own way.” And Mr. Kinnear — though he plays a character, Henry Bolingbroke, who in seizing the crown from Richard brazenly violates the custom of the divine right of kings — chooses to see the tradition of Shakespearean theater in his country as an advantage, not a burden. “It has to do with a continuity that stretches back four centuries, and that’s something I always find quite moving when I’m performing in one of the plays,” he said.
Continuity is, of course, always a relative thing when it comes to making movies. Initially, Mr. Mendes said, “I was very insistent that we rehearse them like plays, for five or six weeks before we started shooting.” To that end, he hired directors with extensive theatrical experience: Rupert Goold for “Richard II,” Richard Eyre for the Henry IV plays and Thea Sharrock for “Henry V.” But Mr. Mendes went off to direct the Bond film “Skyfall” (in which Mr. Whishaw and Mr. Kinnear both appear), and in the hurly-burly of actual production, his rehearsal plan for “The Hollow Crown” didn’t quite work out.
According to Mr. Kinnear and Mr. Whishaw, there were two or three weeks of rehearsals for “Richard II,” but for the three remaining plays, things got a little hectic. The series had the hard deadline of having to be shown as part of Britain’s “Cultural Olympiad” last year. “We spent a day or so working through all my scenes, about eight weeks before,” Mr. Irons said.
And Mr. Hiddleston wound up playing his role, as he put it, “backwards,” beginning with the courtship scene at the end of “Henry V” and moving back through the Battle of Agincourt. “At the end of 14 weeks of shooting,” he said, “I did all the stuff in the tavern,” in which Prince Hal of “Henry IV, Part 1” carouses with the fat old knight John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). “So I started out as the king of England and France, continued on as just the king of England and finished up as the prince of Wales,” he said, laughing. “It’s as if I were shedding weight as I went along.”
The actors even managed to find some benefit in the rush and scramble of production. “What I love about film,” Mr. Whishaw said, is “that you get these magical, spontaneous things that in theater you’re always trying to recapture or make happen again.” One of the big tavern scenes in “Part 1” was, Mr. Hiddleston said, shot in a single take without ever having been rehearsed with the full company. “The people in the tavern really didn’t know what Simon and I were going to do, so they just responded completely spontaneously, surprised, laughing, cheering us on. Simon and I looked at each other afterwards and said, ‘We’d never get anything like that on the stage.’ ”
These plays, Mr. Irons said, are about much more than monarchy. “They’re called history plays, but they’re not history lessons,” he said. “They’re about people in a particular situation which is very difficult for them.”
Certainly, the works come alive when the directors and especially the actors shed at least some of the burdens of tradition. Richard II, perhaps the most eloquent of the sad kings in “The Hollow Crown,” “really only comes into his own, in terms of his language, his poetry, after he’s been deposed, when he’s on the decline,” Mr. Whishaw said. “It allows his voice to soar, and he improvises these incredible riffs around transience and loss, all sorts of things.”
This new series tries to uphold the tradition of Shakespeare by wearing it a little more easily than these monarchs wear their crowns, and the awareness of transience is what makes that possible. Actors, like kings, come and go, one after the other, in their roles. For the actors in “The Hollow Crown,” if not for the kings they play, it’s an orderly succession.
Too Much Shakespeare? Be Not Cowed
Too Much Shakespeare? Be Not Cowed
The feast of Shakespeare on New York stages this season represents a boon for those who cannot get enough of his work. But there are many who will be happy to leave this banquet entirely untasted. Shocking but true: There walk among us a solid bloc of the Shakespeare-averse.
I sat with one such Shakespeare skeptic — the one I see in the mirror after attending a particularly bad performance — with details about the full range of Shakespeare productions on offer this season. (They’re at the ballet and the opera, too.) I did my level best to break down his resistance to attending even one of these performances. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for publication.
ME Hey, can I have a few moments of your time?
HIM I’m kind of busy.
ME I can see that, but I can tell you right now, you’re not going to get past Level 33 of Candy Crush Saga anytime soon. [His left eye begins to twitch.] Trust me.
HIM [Sullenly, putting down iPhone] What do you want to talk about?
ME Shakespeare. You see, there are a whole bunch of Shakespeare productions coming to New York this season and —— [The cloying, hypnotic Candy Crush Saga music tinkles anew through the warm September air.]
ME This is for The New York Times.
HIM O.K., O.K. Five minutes. But I’ve got to tell you, I hate Shakespeare.
ME I understand that. Now tell me why.
HIM Because it’s boring.
[ . . . ]