Enthusiasts of the Bard, take note. "The Hollow Crown," the Sam Mendes-produced BBC series of four Shakespeare adaptations, "Richard II," "Henry IV Part 1" and "Part 2," and "Henry V," begins its stateside airings tonight (September 20) on PBS. Critics have good things to say about the ambitious endeavor, which features a star-studded cast including Tom Hiddleston, Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons and Ben Whishaw.
The A.V. Club is the most praise-worthy, writing that "Shakespeare has never been brought to television so well," while the LA Times claims "the performances are so wonderful it feels wrong to single any out."
"The Hollow Crown," clocking in at a sprawling 505 minutes, hit iTunes, VOD and DVD on August 27, via Focus World.
It's too much to say that this is what television was made for — since it was also made for professional wrestling and situation comedies — but it is part of its original promise and compact, that ennobling great works of art (ennobling in their greatness, that is, not in any didactic way) be made available to all, in the comfort of our own homes. If you are open to them, these plays can actually make you a better person, in a way that most TV will not.
The performances are so wonderful it feels wrong to single any out. But Whishaw finds great power in stillness; Whishaw fits himself admirably to his character's stages and turns of mind, resolving his coldness with his warmth, his cruelty with his generosity. And there is Beale's Falstaff — marvelously poignant, a scoundrel-hero, getting everything wrong. His sorrow at losing the transformed Hal is as tragic a moment as any here, his fall no less thunderous than Richard's.
It’s a privilege to see Shakespeare performed by an actor in the prime of their faculties, with a heavyweight role that tests the limits of their range and the nuance of their expression. There are performances of certain roles that become iconic, masterpieces in their own right: Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, say, or Derek Jacobi in Hamlet. The Hollow Crown—aptly brought Stateside by PBS’ Great Performances series—offers three titanic lead performances in the plays of the Henriad, the epic trilogy that tells the story of the opening salvos of the Wars Of The Roses.
Shakespeare has never been brought to television so well.
First, let’s get this caveat out of the way: Nothing beats a stage performance of a Shakespeare play if the cast is first-rate and the direction insightful. That said, a television (or film) treatment can be helpful, especially for the uninitiated, and especially for these plays, which are not as well known or audience-friendly as, say, “Romeo and Juliet.”
When a full battle is called for, you see a battlefield, with horses and armies. When a chorus recitation is demanded, it is recited (by John Hurt) over footage of a ship at sea, embarked on a cross-channel invasion. And when heads must be severed — pity poor Bushy and Green in “Richard II” — the director, Rupert Goold, has the option of showing you the unpleasant act, and he takes it. (Shakespeare had it occur offstage.) There are bloody moments in “The Hollow Crown,” but not gratuitously so. These are high-stakes plays, and graphically rendered deaths underscore that in a way that a stage production can’t.
Pound for pound, the drama in “The Hollow Crown” matches almost everything in “Game of Thrones.” At times, it’s just as violent and bloody.
The trump card of “Hollow Crown,” of course, is that it was written by Shakespeare — and if the language sounds stilted to modern ears, anyone who listens for more than a few minutes will be properly seduced.
Selling Shakespeare is always a chore. Watching him is a pleasure.