|The BBC's The Hollow Crown, set visit|
|Life & Entertainment - Performing Arts|
|Written by news desk - telegraph.co.ukm|
The BBC's adaptations of four of Shakespeare's history plays feature an all star cast including Jeremy Irons and Simon Russell Beale. Serena Davies visited the set.
We’re in Gloucester Cathedral in January and it is freezing. Jeremy Irons has admitted to wearing long johns and Tom Hiddleston says he’s been piling the layers on too, but mainly on his top half “because otherwise it’s a mission to go to the loo”. The director, Richard Eyre, has a very large Michelin-man coat on. “I’ve found a radiator!” sobs one of the extras.
The actors are midway through a key scene from Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one, an exchange that constitutes one of the great dressings-down in literature. Sporting a cloak and furs over those thermals, as well as a thorny beard, Irons is playing the king in a rage, tearing strips off Hiddleston, humble and ashamed as Henry IV’s errant son, Prince Hal.
Eyre allows Irons to do his whole speech – over 60 lines – for each take, so the actor can reach a sufficient state of fury. And when Irons can’t remember the words he fills the air with expletives – “Don’t you f------ interrupt me” – to keep up the mood.
The film they are making will form part of a tetralogy of Shakespeare history plays that the BBC is presenting as a contribution to the year’s sprawling Cultural Olympiad and the Beeb’s own Shakespeare Unlocked season. The full sequence of plays, entitled The Hollow Crown, and following the fall of one branch of the Plantagenets and the rise of another, will be Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two and Henry V.
This line up has been put together by executive producers Sam Mendes (more a benign consultant in the distance thanks to his duties on the next Bond film, Skyfall) and Pippa Harris (last production, the ratings hit Call the Midwife). “The plays seemed particularly fitting for this particular year, with the Olympics but also the jubilee,” says Harris. “They are about monarchy, they are about England. They are about British history.”
These versions will also be about British theatre. The BBC have secured some of the brightest and best in the country for these flagship productions, which will be screened on the four Saturdays running up to the Olympics on BBC Two and, simultaneously, on public big screens around the country. They will also be screened later in the year in the US on PBS – the Hollow Crown is co-produced with help from the big bucks of NBC Universal.
The directors are senior old sage Eyre (both parts of Henry IV), dazzling young upstart Rupert Goold (Richard II) and Thea Sharrock (Henry V), best-known now for her celeb-sprinkled West End productions.
“It’s an opportunity to do two of Shakespeare’s best plays with several of Britain’s best actors in some extraordinary locations, so what’s not to persuade one to do it,” Eyre tells me when we speak later, over lunch at unit base. Indeed, the cast list across the four plays is enviable. Irons, Simon Russell Beale, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, Maxine Peake, David Suchet, David Morrisey, David Bradley, Richard Griffiths, Paterson Joseph…
The films should also secure the reputation of Hiddleston, who has the largest part as both Hal and then Henry V and appears in three of the four plays. The actor, now 31, did eye-catchingly brilliant work in stage productions of Cymbeline and Othello before he became something of a protégé to Ken Branagh, who gave him celebrity by casting him as Loki in his 2011 film Thor (a success Hiddleston recently repeated in Avengers Assemble). He is arguably the most talented classical performer to rise through the ranks since Ben Whishaw made his name overnight with Hamlet aged just 23 in 2004. Whishaw, incidentally, plays Richard II in The Hollow Crown.
Hiddleston is earnest and charming when we speak on a filming break beneath one of Gloucester’s forbidding Norman arches. He says he has most of the top Shakespeare parts “on the dance card”, but Hal/Henry has always been up there. “In my first year at Rada I read all the history plays in succession, one every Sunday, just to educate myself. I remember thinking the journey of Prince Hal to Henry V is one of the great parts for an actor.”
Irons, almost avuncular as he pulls on a rollie outside a few minutes later, has long since lost interest in a check list, but he’s animated by his character, Henry IV – not least on a personal level.
“I almost think of this as a domestic play,” he says. “Henry’s a father dealing with a difficult son, as many fathers are. I have two wonderful sons but nevertheless one is well aware that, aged between 15 and 25, your children are saying, 'I’m nothing to do with you, I’m going to do my own thing.’ And eventually they come right. But all children need to break away. Especially from powerful fathers.”
The four plays’ combined narrative will take us through roughly half a century of British history. Richard II charts the fall of a weak, spoilt king, and the rise of his first cousin, Bolingbroke, the man who deposed him to become Henry IV in 1399. Bolingbroke, as we see in Henry IV parts one and two, is never easy with his ill-gotten kingship. Indeed, as Pippa Harris describes it, “the guilt of being monarch almost negates the experience for him”.
His crown feels really very hollow, at times. It is only Henry IV’s son Hal, later Henry V, who truly fulfills our expectations of a medieval monarch, according to Shakespeare. In the course of the three Henry plays he sheds his lowlife friends, including the great conniving fool Sir John Falstaff (played here by Simon Russell Beale), and goes from “wayward drunken spirited rebel to dutiful respected proud warrior”, as Hiddleston describes him.
Each of the three directors of the BBC’s films has been allowed free reign over the material, and been required only to coordinate on casting. Eyre has cut his plays himself, Goold in collaboration. All have lost about 30 per cent of the original text – mainly exposition and repetition. Goold, an experimenter, has produced a beautiful, elegiac version of Richard II, although with a trademark dose of extra horror (he was inspired, he says, by Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line). Eyre’s pair feel wordier, more earthy and ribald, the most “Shakesepearean” in their panoply of characters. While Sharrock’s Henry V comes across as a paean to lost chivalry.
The use of real medieval locations – St David’s Cathedral, Pembroke and Caerphilly Castle all feature, as well as Gloucester Cathedral – provide some cohesion, however. And there’s no doubt that all three directors are preoccupied with accessibility, the big worry for a primetime screening of Shakespeare in a slot where the TV viewing public are more used to finding talent shows.
Sharrock has spoken evangelically on this subject: “My dream is that 14 year old kids watch this and whether it’s for two minutes, five minutes or two hours and twelve minutes, get turned on by this and feel excited by Shakespeare.”
While Eyre explains he is taking pains not to alienate the viewer, opening Henry IV part one not with a stiff speech from the king as Shakespeare does, but with the dashing Hiddleston walking through the colourful squalor of Eastcheap to the Boar’s Head, the tavern Hal frequents with the rollicking Falstaff. Eyre tells me he’s given the court a dark, cold colour palate and the tavern a warm rich one so that the audience picks up on the contrast of the two worlds subconsciously.
He is also passionate on the necessity of this project. “I worked for years making films for television; I made some of Plays for Today for the BBC,” he says. “Television is the way people get access to the arts. I grew up in the middle of Dorset. My father was a farmer and I never went to the theatre until I was 15. So the only Shakespeare I’d seen was on TV; the only classical music I’d heard was on the radio. I grew up thinking that was my birthright.
“I know it’s very difficult and we’re multichannel and the audience is atomised now,” he goes on. “But I think it’s really important: not that everyone should have a dose of Shakespeare, but that he is a great, great, great playwright and everyone should have a chance to see his plays.”
Back in the cathedral, Irons-as-Henry’s bitter words to Hal chill the air better than the icy breeze from outside: “The hope and expectation of thy time/ Is ruin’d, and the soul of every man/ Prophetically doth forethink thy fall.”
The members of the crew turn from their monitors to watch the scene. And Eyre’s endeavour seems a noble one.