The Hollow Crown

Some time ago, I recommended the Hollow Crown, which presented the four plays of Shakespeare’s “Henriad”  — Richard II, Henry IV (Part I and II), and Henry V, based on early reviews and clips.

Now that I’ve actually seen three of these productions, I continue to recommend them. Other than Henry V, these plays are rarely produced, and even more rarely filmed.  This is a good opportunity to see all of them together, in a user-friendly format (none of the productions are much longer than 2 hours).

The performances are uniformly strong, even in the small roles. The UK has a strong bench when it comes to casting Shakespeare. Production values are high — many of the scenes are shot outdoors, and the indoor scenes use real late medieval interiors.

Having said that, I did like some of these productions more than the others. Since I’ve seen all of these plays before (in most cases several times), I couldn’t help comparing them to prior performances. But these are matters of my personal taste, not a comment on the values of the productions themselves.

Richard II was, in my view, by far the strongest production. Richard II is one of the more difficult of these plays to produce, in large part because nothing much happens. The success of the play rests, to an unusual extent, on the actor playing Richard II. Ben Whishaw, an actor best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Q in the rebooted James Bond series, gives a convincing performance as a man who is so used to being king he literally can’t conceive that his crown might be in trouble until it’s already gone. A pivotal scene, in which Richard returns from an unsuccessful military campaign in Ireland to find his political support has almost completely evaporated, is played right on the beach, to stunning effect.

There are also some wonderful smaller performances in this play. Patrick Stewart, as John of Gaunt, gets some of the play’s best lines.  And there’s also a wonderful scene between Richard and the palace gardener, a sort of English everyman, made all the more humorous because the guy delivering it was last seen sweeping floors at Hogwarts.

This is by far the best production of Richard II I have ever seen.  If you are going to see just one of these productions, this is the one to see.

Henry IV Part I is a play that deserves to be produced more. The fascinating interactions between King Henry (here played by the redoubtable Jeremy Irons) and his wayward son Prince Hal (the up-and-coming British actor Tom Hiddleston), unusually perceptive for its time, are well done here. And as usual Hotspur steals most every scene he’s in.

The biggest problem I had with this production was Falstaff. Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s great creations — part rogue, part con man, now sadly gone in drink, but still with just a touch of the bright shining knight he must once have been (if only for a few minutes). Different actors have played this part in many different ways. But what he must be is larger than life. In this production, Falstaff was just a pathetic old drunk, without an ounce of charm. You don’t believe for one moment that Prince Hal would even have enjoyed talking with him, much less looked up to him. The other tavern characters — Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly — were fine, but for me, this Falstaff ruined all the tavern scenes, which are usually such an enjoyable part of this play.

For that reason, I didn’t see Henry IV Part II, which is very Falstaff-centric.

Henry V is the strongest play, but for me it was the least satisfying production. There was nothing wrong with the performances — the famous speeches were appropriately stirring, and the scenes depicting Henry V visiting the frightened English troops the night before the Battle of Agincourt were particularly good.

The director made a number of cuts, which is pretty normal.  It was just unlucky that some of my favorite scenes — the Archbishop’s convoluted dissection of Salic Law  to justify Henry’s invasion, the heavily-accented byplay between the Scottish and Welsh auxiliaries, and the French constable’s ode to his horse the night before the battle that the horses will lose for them — happened to be either heavily truncated or missing entirely.

There were also a couple of strange directorial choices. The scene depicting the Princess of France learning English is usually played as light comedy — English actors pretending to be Frenchwomen pretending to learn English, gleefully mangling pronunciations on both sides of the Channel. The effect is lost where, as here, the actors playing the French women were actual French speakers. The production also makes some changes regarding Henry’s killing of the French prisoners which, although it may be more historically accurate, doesn’t make sense for Henry as Shakespeare portrays him.

Your mileage may vary.  Overall, this was a pretty good, if not great, production. But I found the Kenneth Branagh film version more satisfying.

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Zealot (Book)

Reza Aslan, an Iranian who grew up as a Muslim, flirted with Christianity, became a New Testament scholar, and returned to Islam again, is uniquely placed to write this book about Jesus the man, not Jesus the Christ. He reviews the available evidence and comes up with some startling, not always persuasive, interpretations about Jesus’ life.  Aslan does a good job demolishing the myth of the hand-washing Pilate, charting its trajectory from the earliest Biblical sources (which barely mention Pilate), to the later “let the guilt be upon our heads for generations” version that was used to justify centuries of anti-Semitism. And Aslan is certainly correct that the followers of Jesus had to refocus the view of Jesus’ mission after his crucifixion (the same way Jews had to refocus after the destruction of their temple).  But they didn’t create the more spiritual Jesus out of whole cloth — there’s a reason why Jesus is still remembered after 2000 years, and the rest of the more politically-oriented would-be messiahs of 1st C Judea (and there were a bunch of them) are now forgotten.

Aslan has a lively writing style suitable for the general reader. For those interested in more information, in the end notes (which take up about 1/3 of the book) Aslan reviews the academic controversies on various points and explains why he has made the choices he has.  More scholars should write this way.