The Hollow Crown Disc 2-3: Henry IV, William Shakespeare

Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston
The more I think about these two plays together, the more they puzzle me. I don't have a good feel for the "shape" at all. When I think of the Henry IV plays, I think of them as having three big through-lines: Hal's relationship with Falstaff, Hal's relationship with his father Henry IV, and Hal's relationship with Hotspur.

The relationship that seems to get the most attention in this 2013 version is the Hal/Falstaff, and the arc is one of disillusionment. After a jolly introduction, Tom Hiddleston plays a serious Hal, quick to take offense, dismayed to discover his companions are no better than they are. Case in point: 1 Henry IV Act V scene iv in which Falstaff presents the dead Hotspur to Hal and Lancaster as his own handiwork.

FALSTAFF: ...There is Percy:
Throwing the body down
if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let
him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either
earl or duke, I can assure you.
PRINCE HENRY: Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.
FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff
I've previously seen this treated as absurd - another case of Falstaff being outrageous - and Hal easily and willingly gives up his claim to killing Percy. In this version, it was a much more serious matter: Hal had "won" Hotspur's honor, exchanged honor with him by killing him in battle, and to give this up hurt. The lie was a personal injury, an example of how his dearest friend would stab him in the back if it meant personal advantage. In the end, of course, Hiddleston's Hal forces a laugh and allows Falstaff's false claim to stand, but it is a bitter moment. There's a similar point in 2 Henry IV in which Hal overhears Falstaff insulting him. I've seen this played good-naturedly - Hal revealing himself and confronting Falstaff with his own statements - but Hiddleston's version also treats this seriously. Hal is very offended and it's another blow to their, by this point, tenuous relationship. The Falstaff, Simon Russell Beale, is one of the best I've seen. I think he absolutely nails this role, possibly definitively. I think where they really got it right was a bit in which Hal confronts Falstaff after the Gadshill robbery and the two of them start circling each other, laughing and trading insults, like two boxers performing for a crowd: I think that's the Hal/Falstaff relationship perfectly.

I'm not a huge fan of Jeremy Irons as a Shakespearean actor - I think he tends to play the emotion rather than the details of the text - and I think this may be why the Henry IV/Hal conflict of the two plays didn't work for me.

Joe Armstrong as Hotspur
The Hal/Hotspur also didn't work for me, particularly, I think, because they made a choice to play Hotspur "realistically" as a rough and tumble soldier/thug, so his quick temper and reputation worked, but it was hard to picture him waxing lyrical, as he does in the text, about "plucking bright honour from the pale-faced moon." I would really, really like to see Hotspur as "the hero" of the piece, right up until near the end, so that the audience is right there with Henry IV in wishing this was the prince, and then the exchange happens where we see the value of Hal and the folly of Hotspur after all. One of the things that is difficult about this particular relationship is that Hal and Hotspur have no scenes together until the final battle, but I think this means as a director, as an actor, you have to play their scenes as if they are, in fact, very conscious of each other, thinking of each other, constantly comparing themselves mentally. At any rate, in this production, Hotspur came off as brutal and rather unlikeable, while Hal was charming from the start, so there wasn't much ambiguity to be resolved.

What I did get from this production was a vivid sense of two worlds in conflict: the rowdy, golden glow of life in the streets, and the grim, dour court obsessed with plots and civil war. And Hiddleston makes a striking Hal - he looks like a prince visiting among mortals - and it made me think of lines actually in Richard II where Richard complains that Bolingbrook (on his way to becoming Henry IV):

...Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench;
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well
And had the tribute of his supple knee,
With 'Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends;'
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope.

and it occurred to me that Hal really loves England - I mean the people - and understands them in a way that Henry IV does not or has lost. Everyone is worried that Hal has fallen away from his princely role, but he is, in a way, coming to know his future kingdom. I think this is important, the way that it is important for Superman to love Lois Lane (possibly the first time that comparison has been made), or the Gnostic Jesus to love Sophia: God incarnate loves the fallible, all too human, world. That's tremendously beautiful and moving to me, but then is under-cut if the rest of the story is one of disillusionment and revulsion.

What does Hal learn from his time in Eastcheap? I think that's the question of the Henry IV plays, and this production seemed to say: "That a king has no true friends." I'm not sure that's how I'd tackle it. Or perhaps it is not what Hal has to learns as the fact that he is able from the start to find value in Eastcheap that shows he will be a good king.