Daily Archives: July 13, 2021

Henry IV, Part One (2012)


*. This is the second part of the “Hollow Crown” tetralogy, and to repeat and amplify a point I made in my notes on the first part, Richard II, we’re even more aware of it being a movie rather than a play. As things get under way we’re not just having speeches broken up, but cutting back and forth between different scenes.
*. The Henry IV plays involve an odd mix of elements, elements that have shifted over the centuries. For a long time the first part in particular was Falstaff’s play, with Hotspur getting almost equal billing. In the twentieth century, with a rising interest in power politics and cynical statecraft, the story of Hal and his father took center stage. This shift was accompanied by more stagings of the “Henriad” tetralogy. I believe the first time this was done was in the 1860s. It’s quite common today.
*. With the rise of Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff have been diminished. Hotspur here is well played by Joe Armstrong, but he’s very much a one-note hothead, exasperating even his wife with his relentless man talk. The latter (Simon Russell Beale) is more ancient than vigorous, with a definite cast of ill health in his Bardolphian face and boiler gut. In his essay on the play, Northrop Frye mentions how Falstaff’s first appearance in Part Two, where he discusses his urine samples, signifies a closeness to the man that is uncomfortable. In this production we first meet Falstaff rising from bed and pissing into a pot and then looking skeptically into it. Before we even get properly started we’re feeling that uncomfortable closeness.
*. This isn’t a big problem, but with Falstaff there is always a balancing act between charm and disgust. Such an introduction definitely tips the scale one way.
*. It also sounds a note of “realism.” This is another tricky point. We feel it most sharply in the battle scenes that come at the end here. These are obviously influenced by Branagh’s Henry V, with their emphasis on blood and mud. But Shakespeare’s battles aren’t realistic. They include lots of time-outs for characters to discuss matters and engage in one-on-one confrontations. To make Shrewsbury more realistic or historically accurate necessarily involves streamlining a lot of this. No great loss, perhaps, with getting rid of the business of the counterfeit kings, but I was dismayed that Hotspur’s dying speech was almost entirely cut. I didn’t see any reason for that.
*. Of course almost every production of Shakespeare, on stage or screen, has to make some cuts. A “full text” version, like Branagh did with his Hamlet, is a rarity (especially for that play). As I’ve noted, I was really disappointed that Hotspur’s final lines were left out. Another scene involving an odd cut is the one in the tavern with Hal and Poins teaming up to mock the drawer Francis.
*. The Francis stuff isn’t very funny, and would be an easy cut for most productions to make. After it’s over Poins even asks Hal what the point of it was (“Come, what’s the issue?”). Hal responds with some enigmatic lines, with thematic significance, about being “now of all humours.” I don’t understand why they keep the practical joke on Francis but drop Poins’s question and Hal’s response, which provides its only justification.
*. In addition to the cuts, there are some interesting interpretations. The one that stands out the most to me is Hal’s rebuff of Falstaff in the little drama they stage where he plays his father the king, concluding with his line that he will banish Falstaff. Usually this is delivered with a suddenly steely determination, but here Tom Hiddleston almost breaks down, he finds the thought so upsetting.
*. This is a good production, well cast with solid performances throughout. In keeping with most modern versions, it’s darker than the kind of thing that Shakespeare’s own time might have seen, but this is only drawing out a darkness that’s always been there, even in the comic parts.