As the epic miniseries event The Hollow Crown continues on Great Performances (Friday, 9pm), the story of Henry IV concludes with Shakespeare’s sequel play, Henry IV, Part II. Though the follow-up play was at large less celebrated than its predecessor, its dramatic story and engaging character developments offer opportunities for some of the memorable performances for which Shakespeare’s work is known. Here the story picks up where Part I left off, with much of the cast reacting to and carrying on after the Battle of Shrewsbury. King Henry has returned to being mostly disenchanted with his son, Prince Hal, the latter of whom has made attempts to change his ways and behave more like a future king. Meanwhile, Hal himself has grown disenchanted with Sir John Falstaff, the bawdy criminal knight who is responsible for leading Hal down a unruly social path. Hal and Falstaff are certainly the pillars of the story, with their lives running parallel to each other’s as their personal plots unfold. As Hal struggles with the weight of his future and his duty to the king, Falstaff’s mischief is interrupted by his own mission as a captain in the king’s army against the rebels.
Much of our cast returns in this adaptation, including Jeremy Irons as a poignant and conflicted Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston in his riveting performance as Prince Hal, and the immensely entertaining Simon Russell Beale as Sir John Falstaff. Also returning are Alun Armstrong as the Earl of Northumberland, who is given material with which to craft a very moving performance when he hears of his son Hotspur’s fate; Michelle Dockery as Hotspur’s passionate wife, Lady Percy; Julie Walters as the sweet but gullible Mistress Quickly; David Dawson as Hal's comrade Poins; and Maxine Peake as the hot-tempered prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Joining the cast for the second installment are David Bamber as Shallow, Niamh Cusack as Lady Northumberland, Iain Glen as the Earl of Warick, Dominic Rowan as Coleville, and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. I so enjoyed the initial cast members of this adaptation, and the additions for the second part compliment them perfectly. I think these performances really bring to light the originality and the genuine creativity of Shakespeare’s colorful characters. There’s an essence of the theatrical in the performances that manages to blur the line a bit between play and film, making it feel all the more authentic and modern.
It’s interesting to see the lives of Hal and Falstaff diverge onto such different paths, and especially entertaining to watch Falstaff as he endeavors solo, without many of the members of his social brigade. How he wavers between desperation and his characteristic insulting wit showcases the fickleness of his nature, and Simon Russell Beale just perfectly manifests himself into the role. I would imagine this is one very challenging character to play, having as he does so much lengthy and complex (though ultimately comedic) dialogue, but Beale is so utterly natural in his ability to portray him. Later in the film, when Falstaff is met with the most heartbreaking result of his folly, the audience is moved in a much more serious way by the performance, and it manages to fully capture the depth of Falstaff’s character that, for much of the story, has been kept from us.
I sang Tom Hiddleston’s praises for the first half of Henry IV and there’s not much for me to do but repeat myself. His enjoyment of the role and his connectivity to the character are strongly evident in his performance, and the result makes for a highly energetic and moving depiction of this chapter in Hal’s life. I’m looking forward to seeing him continue the story of Prince Hal as Henry V in next week’s adaptation of that play. But as Henry IV leaves us here, it’s necessary to add that Jeremy Irons’s performance as the king has been as powerful and riveting as an audience would expect from him. From an entire standout cast and the continually superb direction of Richard Eyre, Henry IV, Part II is a fascinating and beautifully achieved adaptation full of life, drama, and verve.
Henry IV, Part II will air as part of Great Performances on Friday, October 4 for much of the country; visit PBS.org to find more information on the program and to check your local listings.
Photos © Joss Barratt