The Hollow Crown – As good as TV Shakespeare can get?

From the Guardian.co.uk

The Hollow Crown: as good as TV Shakespeare can get?

The BBC’s new Shakespeare films, starting this weekend with Richard II, show that the Bard can play as well on TV as in the theatre

During TV conferences and festivals, at least one delegate always argues that Shakespeare, if he were around today, would be writing EastEnders or Holby City. This claim is based on the fact that theatre, at the time Shakespeare’s plays were written, was a mass audience form rather than the relatively elitist entertainment it has become; and also, more subtly, on the contention that the playwright’s fondness for parallel plots and cross-cutting to some extent anticipates screen narrative.

And yet, despite these affinities, Will has always tested the will of TV producers. The BBC TV Shakespeare – a late 1970s attempt to film all 37 plays as an educational tool – became a headline calamity, helping to establish Clive James’s reputation as a critic through his pitiless Observer reviews of shaking scenery and stagey acting. The original production of Much Ado About Nothing (starring Penelope Keith and Michael York) was never transmitted because, according to the minutes of BBC management meetings I have seen, it was considered such a failure.

The original producer, the late Cedric Messina, left the project and Jonathan Miller came in as an emergency replacement. Miller steadied the shipwreck – with productions including John Cleese as a brilliant Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew – and it’s good to have a permanent record of, for example, Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet. But, in general, the experience cemented the view that Shakespeare is a weapon to be deployed on television only when particular performances called to be immortalised – Laurence Olivier’s King Lear and Ian McKellen’s and Judi Dench’s Macbeths on ITV, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth by the BBC – or when there is a special occasion, such as BBC licence fee renegotiation or, this summer, as part of the Cultural Olympiad alongside the London Games.

Bringing together four of the Shakesperean English history plays under a group of high-class stage directors, The Hollow Crown begins this weekend on BBC2 and marks a significant advance in the medium’s fight with this writer.

The troubled BBC Complete Shakespeare taught several lessons – that not all of the works merit the attention of the audience; that studio recordings create an uneasy limbo between theatre and TV; that the pace and fluidity of made-for-TV dramas can make stage plays seem slow and staid; and that it is vital to have an overall producer who understands both Shakespeare and film.

The Hollow Crown brings a full set of ticks to this checklist. Present from the start, rather than parachuted in as Jonathan Miller was, Sam Mendes has executive produced the series, while also presiding over another English cultural icon: the new James Bond movies.

And this BBC TV Shakespeare is sensibly restricted to a discrete and particular 9% or so of the collected works. The linked sequence of Richard II (directed by Rupert Goold), Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (filmed by Sir Richard Eyre) and Henry V (under Thea Sharrock’s direction) tell a sequential story, with recurring characters and so have a structural similarity with the four-part family drama, a staple of TV fiction. In this sense, The Hollow Crown can be seen as a relative of The Tudors, though with significantly better dialogue.

Mendes and his directors have also assimilated the wisdom of TV property shows: what matters in filming Shakspeare is location, location, location. Instead of a studio mediaeval England formed from hardboard, we get actual castles, taverns and forests.

The two productions that I have so far seen – Richard II and the first part of Henry IV – also convincingly show that, rather than being a triumph over limitations, filmed Shakespeare has some advantages over theatrical versions. In the often-bewildering opening scene of Richard II, which begins with a list of characters and their achievements, Goold’s camera can simply close in on the noble being mentioned, easily establishing characters in a way that, in the theatre, would require much fumbling with a programme in the dark.

And, in Henry IV, Eyre employs every trick of cinematic fluidity to match the quick flow of modern screen drama: cross-cutting and dissolving between the three main locations (the court, the rebels, Falstaff’s dens) and turning soliloquies into their natural screen equivalent of voice-overs.

Another benefit of television is the available cast: because it isn’t asking for a three-month run or global tour to make the budget back, The Hollow Crown simultaneously retains a group of actors that even the most famous theatres could only accumulate over several seasons. Theatre-goers have long anticipated Simon Russell Beale’s eventual Falstaff but he gives it here first: cloud-bearded and earthy, a portrait of ambition and intelligence chiselled away by appetite. And, if SRB does play Falstaff in the theatre, it is highly unlikely, for budgetary and logistical reasons, to be in a company that also includes Julie Walters, Lindsay Duncan, David Suchet and David Morrissey.

There remains a basic flaw in the theory that because Shakepeare was a populist writer in his time, he should naturally suit TV now: the mainstream television audience, often made suspicious of classic theatre by education and school theatre outings, would take much persuasion to tune in to these dramas. But, despite that caveat, The Hollow Crown feels as good as TV Shakespeare is going to get.

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