This weekend Richard Eyre’s contribution to the Hollow Crown came to a hefty conclusion — with more pomp, more ceremony, and, you’ve guessed it, even more of the rotund Simon Russell Beale making Sir John Falstaff’s foibles unexpectedly unjolly (a performance that’s been splitting opinion, but I’m still a fan).
In Part 1, you didn’t see as much of Jeremy Irons as you would like. This time, playing King Henry like Joe Cocker auditioning for Lear, all those memories of Brideshead Revisited, and that dashing, edgy Charles Ryder come flooding back to remind us that if you want calculated, gloomy or edgy, a dead-set Mr Irons is still one of the best. I suspect when Geoffrey Palmer’s Chief Justice warns Falstaff not to “wake a sleeping wolf”, he’s talking about the man whose eyes put the hollow in the hollow crown.
Irons also manages to add a bit of oomph to what is the least exotic of the tetralogy. Part 2 is known as the less dramatic or interesting of the two Henry IV outings — less time for Hal and Falstaff’s tomfoolery in the Boar’s Head is always going to be comparatively dull — so it’s up to Eyre and the cast to keep us hooked with more of the deft touches we got in Part 1.
It’s a task most of them thankfully live up to. After hearing of Hotspur’s death during the battle of Shrewsbury, his father (played by real life father Alun Armstrong) saddles up for a second rebellion against the king. It is squashed, not by war, but by Henry IV’s other son Prince John’s political machinations. That precipitates another barrage of this theme of fathers and sons struggling for truth, which, fun as the lowlifes are in these plays, is the real point. So yes, Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is a bit of a laugh, but its role in the hunt for steady government is all the more pertinent. After all, we all know what running a country with a fractious legislature can be like.
And like all good sons, it seems Tom Hiddleston has inherited some of his on-screen pop’s gift for poise. We all know his face from big-budget Hollywood films, including Loki in Thor and Avengers Assemble and Captain Nicholls in War Horse, so it was only to be expected he would come under such scrutiny in one of the Bard’s greatest roles. But how does he live up? Does he help make Shakespeare accessible?
With the help of some striking support (a particular nod to Maxine Peake and Julie Walters) I’d say yes — he keeps the emotions balanced, always self questioning, always simmering, but never so much that he overdoes it. With Hiddleston’s track record with what many are calling his mentor (surely not another father figure?) Kenneth Branagh (he’s worked with him on Thor, two series of Wallander and in Ivanov at the Donmar), the next big step is Henry V. And that’s a challenge we’ve all been waiting for.