“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits…”
So states King Richard II, helpfully explaining the title of The Hollow Crown and summing up exactly what the series is about: the coming and going of three kings during a tumultuous period of English history. Immortalized by William Shakespeare in his tetralogy of historic plays collectively known as “The Henriad,” Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V come to life in a stunning, impeccably cast four-part series, with one episode dedicated to each play. Originally aired on BBC, the series arrived on American television screens September 20 on PBS. It was released on DVD ahead of its airdate for those who simply couldn’t wait to see why it was met with such critical acclaim.
Richard II follows the downfall of Richard II (Ben Whishaw), a vain young king whose decision to exile his cousin Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), the future Henry IV, sets off a chain of events that turns the majority of his court against him. Richard is forced surrender the crown and watch as his world crumbles around him. In Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), now an aging man still plagued by guilt over Richard’s deposition, struggles to manage his unruly son, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston). Plots of rebellion force them to march off to war to protect their family’s claim to the throne. The action continues in Henry IV Part II, where Henry IV is finally able to reconcile with Hal. Finally, in Henry V, Prince Hal, the newly crowned Henry V, leaves behind his wild youth and sets out to prove himself on the battlefields of France.
Although The Hollow Crown also features some of today’s most legendary thespians, including Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and Simon Russell Beale, the younger breed often takes center stage. Whishaw, who viewers may recognize as Q from Skyfall, gives what is arguably the strongest performance among the primary cast members, having won a Leading Actor BAFTA to show for it. He plays Richard with such poetic grace that the ear yearns to cling to each of his meticulously enunciated words, the Shakespearean English spoken as naturally as one might speak modern English today. True history is often lost within Shakespeare’s mostly fictional propaganda-fuelled plays, but Whishaw brings a tragic gravity to a role that is not often interpreted effectively beyond merely a stupid and selfish king. Instead, Richard’s petulance is childlike and his abrupt mood swings are marked by overwhelming helplessness, all of which are conveyed beautifully. This is indeed a grim reminder that the real Richard was only 10 years old when he was crowned king, robbed of much of his childhood, and only 32 when he was deposed, dying shortly afterwards – very much a man lost in the events of his own life.
Hiddleston, well-known to audiences as Marvel supervillain Loki, is also impressive, though he is more convincing and charming as the roguish young Hal than Henry V. Unlike Richard II, who is rarely portrayed in front of the camera, Henry V is an iconic character who has been played over and over again in films by legends like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. There’s no denying his magnetic charisma, but Hiddleston had some very big shoes to fill and couldn’t quite step out from the shadow of his predecessors. Other noteworthy young actors include Joe Armstrong as the hot-headed rebel Henry Percy and Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame as his headstrong wife.
Richard II remains the most emotionally compelling of the four episodes, with Henry IV Part 2 perhaps the weakest. Richard II is characterized by beautifully bleak imagery to reflect Richard’s fate. He is introduced at the height of his glory, perched atop his throne in full regalia, and meets his end in the dark of a dungeon, wasting away and losing his grip on reality before dying an undignified death. The stark contrast is horrific and disturbing, yet oddly appropriate, given Richard’s poetic nature. However, the camera often zooms into the faces of actors delivering monologues at unflattering and uncomfortable angles and in other scenes, the camera also goes a little overboard as it spins in nauseating circles, trying to invoke a sweeping grandness. By contrast, both parts of Henry IV as well as Henry V are and driven more by action rather than a doomed king waxing eloquent, and the camerawork feels wider in scope. Though rousing, Henry V’s famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” speech leaves much to be desired, falling short of its epic potential, as Henry V shouts it only to a small group of men. Bits and pieces are omitted from all four episodes with some tweaks made here and there, but the series as a whole does still remain quite faithful to Shakespeare’s text.
For fans of Shakespeare, The Hollow Crown is an impressive and ambitious adaptation that cannot be missed. Those who struggle to comprehend Shakespearean English may find themselves at a loss in Richard II, which is built primarily upon Shakespeare’s skill as a poet, but the lively tavern scenes and action-packed battles of the two Henry IV episodes and Henry V could still prove a treat. Nevertheless, the series tells Shakespeare’s stories beautifully – stories of despair, downfall, triumph, love, and hope – and brings it to the masses, the Bard’s intended audience. Held firmly together by meticulous construction and a slew of breathtaking performances, The Hollow Crown is truly a testament to Ben Jonson’s famous description of Shakespeare: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”