Jeremy Irons goes Henry IV into battle

Liverpool Echo 30 June 2012

After almost a decade, Jeremy Irons is returning to Shakespeare, as King Henry IV in a new BBC series. Acting’s good, he tells Kate Whiting, but what he really loves doing is tinkering with his boat.

IN A snow-covered field just a stone’s throw from the M25, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston and a heavily disguised Simon Russell Beale are doing battle.

It’s a surreal sight, as Jeremy and Tom, in chain mail and red capes, charge back and forth on horses through a throng of armour-clad men, while Russell Beale, in a fat-suit and clasping a spear, runs comically away from just about everyone in his path.

On hills either side of the small valley are camps of ancient tents and, were it not for the camera crew in modern-day dress, you could almost imagine it was Medieval England. Even the sounds of the M25 have been muffled, much to director Richard Eyre’s relief, thanks to the snow.

But this is January, 2012, and the scene being filmed is the climax of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, where the future Henry V, young Prince Hal, will defeat rebel leader Hotspur, ultimately taking his place in history.

Some time earlier, in the comfort of a heated modern tent, which doubles as wardrobe and canteen for the battling mob, Jeremy Irons, who’s playing the titular king, settles down to discuss his first Shakespeare play since the 2004 Merchant Of Venice film.

He looks every inch the lauded British thespian, dressed in a red woolly jumper, Middle Eastern scarf, cords and high black boots, with a backwards cap on his head – chic but cosy.

“Shakespeare is wonderful to come back to, you forget how fertile his language is,” says the 63-year-old, in those deep, familiar tones.

“You get used to working in film, where language is spare and often not well written and suddenly you get back to this language, his use of rhythm, the choice of words, the way he changes from one thought to another on a sixpence, which is glorious.

“It’s like driving an Aston Martin and you think, ‘Oh yes, this can do anything, once I get to know how to do it’. Once you’ve done some of those big roles, even though you might not have done it for a few years, you know the possibilities, you know what you’re looking for – which is to make it sound completely colloquial and understandable to an audience.”

Indeed, with their season of four Shakespeare history plays, entitled The Hollow Crown, it’s the BBC’s mission to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. As part of the Cultural Olympiad in the run-up to London 2012, the Shakespeare Unlocked season charts the rise and fall of three kings; self-indulgent Richard II (played by Ben Whishaw) who is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, Henry IV, and finally his son Henry V.

The two parts of Henry IV tell of the king’s guilt over deposing his cousin and struggle to retain the crown, as his enemies rise up against him.

In recent years, Jeremy, who made his name in the 1981 ITV series Brideshead Revisited before starring in films such as Lolita, The Mission, The Lion King and the Oscar-winning Reversal Of Fortune, has returned to TV acting, with an acclaimed role in the US drama The Borgias. Next month, he’s off to Budapest to film the third series.

Television has become more appealing as film budgets dwindle, he says.

“Movies are really having a problem. The sort of pictures I make, what I call the £8m to £30m, are not made very easily now. The £200m are getting made and the £1m movies are getting made, but the ones in the middle are finding it very hard.

“I’ve been watching the series that are coming out of America and there’s such good writing happening. Mad Men, The Wire, Damages, this is really good drama, good writing.”

When he does get a break from his acting schedule, Jeremy has more than enough at home in Ireland to keep him busy.

“I love downtime because there are many other things I love doing,” he says simply. “I’ve always been a doer-upper of things. In the early days it was furniture, then it became houses. Now I have a boat and horses, which is very lucky.

“At one stage, during my 30s, I remember leaving the house thinking, ‘Why do I have to work, there’s so much I want to get done?’. Then I thought, ‘Careful, you have to work in order to support the life you want to live’.”

And with that, Jeremy is off to ride a horse – for work.

The Hollow Crown begins on BBC Two today. Jeremy Irons appears in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 on Saturday, July 7 and Saturday, July 14

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