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Great series, but Henry V adaptation a let down
on 23 July 2012
Ever since I found out about this series I had been looking forward to it with great anticipation, not least because these are some of my favourite Shakespeare plays but also because as a student of medieval history I have a particular interest in the period then the plays are set.
I admit I rather doubted the BBCs capacity to be faithful to the setting without being obsessively politically correct but was, for the most part pleasantly surprised.
In Richard II Ben Wishaw was excellent in the title role as a king whose sense of his own majesty gave him a sense of something like detachment from the events around him. Whishaw's Richard could be nothing other than a King, and one could almost believe that by taking his crown, Bolingbroke also destroyed Richard the man.
Patrick Stewart as the ailing John of Gaunt was also an excellent casting choice, and for the most part the production was solid, authentic looking and realistic.
My only gripe was that some of the violence did seem a little excessive, and it hardly seemed likely that anyone would deliver the severed heads of traitors to the King personally in a basket, and that King Richard seemed much too camp at times. His possible homosexual tendencies were only rumoured and never proven that I know of, but here they seem to be presented as an obvious and known fact in some places.
In Henry IV Jeremy Irons gave us a more 'grown up', mature, brooding and more troubled Henry beset by rebellion, illness and his own conscience. Shakespeare did a wonderful job of portraying Henry's gradual breakdown as he struggled to retain control of his kingdom and his household and Irons depicts this well.
I loved Joe Armstong as the headstrong and cocky Hotspur (though I never really liked him as Allan a Dale), with friction between him and fellow rebel Owen Glendower very noticeable.
The only real disappointment for me was Falstaff who for the most part simply seemed unfunny, and just sounded like an unhinged old man talking to himself when he delivered the soliloquies that were meant to give insights into his character, and the only other gripe I had was the sexual content.
It was obvious that Doll Tearsheet was a prostitute, and anyone could guess what she and Falstaff got up to in the bedroom so was it really necessary for the programme makers to show them 'at it' anyway? Not really.
Henry V, my favourite Shakespeare play of all was a total let down, which did not nearly reach the standard of its predecessors. It was not the play that was the problem- it has enough political intrigue, romance, heroism, battle scenes, acts of courage and emotional poignancy to make a first rate Drama, and there have been wonderful adaptations of it in the past, most notably Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version. However, the casting, quality of acting and editing of the latest version created a mutilated, disjointed, and rather dry and non-compelling adaptation.
Personally, for me Tom Hiddleston did not 'cut it' as the Shakespeare's warrior King Henry V whose charisma and strength of character alone could inspire his men to victory. Indeed, this Henry seemed positively lightweight.
Many of the other characters seem to have lacked any depth, and simply delivered their lines without sounding as though their heart was really in it. Thus there seemed to be little feeling or emotion in this version as there is in Branagh's. Even the famous Crispin's Day speech (`We Few we happy few') to me did not seem at all moving or inspiring, and the humorous scenes or interludes failed to deliver any comic relief.
The filmmakers cut out a number of scenes and passages, including the Southampton Plot in which three nobles were discovered to have planned to kill King Henry before he left for France. This scene was arguably important in its depiction of Henry's character development as it shows he was capable of making tough and even painful decisions to protect his kingdom- the harsh reality for Medieval kings, as well as showing that there was opposition to him.
Also Henry's two brothers Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and John Duke of Bedford (formerly John of Lancaster in Henry IV) are absent from this version for reasons unknown. Though Bedford's absence can perhaps be historically justified because he was not at Agincourt, his brother Gloucester was. So why not include him?
Yet despite his sibling's absence Henry is still heard to say 'we are in God's hand brother' after treating with the French herald- a line originally delivered in response to Gloucester's voicing his hope that the French would not come upon the English too soon, when his brother is not even there and the line makes no sense.
Instead the Duke of York, a minor character with only a few lines in the original play replaces them in a prominent role, constantly appearing as something like the King's 'right hand man'- and sometimes seemingly being given other characters' lines or roles.
For instance it was the King's Uncle the Duke of Exeter that Pistol asked Llewellyn to intercede with to stop Bardolph being hanged in the original play, yet for some reason in this version York is the one who is responsible for this. It can be assumed that the elevation of York's character reflected the casting of an Ethnic minority actor is his role, and the BBC's desire to ensure he was not therefore overshadowed by White British actors with `bigger' or more important roles.
Finally, events surrounding the killing of the prisoners at Agincourt (which was cut out of Branagh's version) did not seem to be well portrayed- it is shown that Henry feared the French would regroup and make a fresh attack hence his given the order to kill the prisoners, but all we see are three French knights riding by, hardly enough to pose a threat.
Thus the whole scene is implausible especially when Henry refers to the French knights still riding over the field when only he and a few English soldiers are visible.
Only the beginning and final scene of this version really featuring Henry's funeral seemed to be any good, as they helped to 'round off' the story and give the audience a sense of finality- as well as letting them know what happened to Henry. The chorus' closing speech recounting the loss of France and demise of the Lancastrian dynasty gave the ending a poignantly tragic note, but one which sadly could not make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the play. The final installment was, in my opinion was a disappointing and weak conclusion to an otherwise great series.