Have you tried larping? If you’ve never heard of it, it stands for live action role playing, a hobby where enthusiasts recreate famous battles. With all its gruesome boys’ toys, the medieval period is one of the most popular.
It’s generally regarded as a bit of harmless make believe, but when you take part and someone thrusts a weapon at you that could skewer a manatee, you get a sense of the very real thrill and terror of 15th century battle. It was with this in mind that I sat down to Shakespeare’s bloodiest play of all, expecting “the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, the dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans for husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers” in all its glory.
Sadly, in this department director Thea Sharrock’s Henry V isn’t up to scratch.
Where Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation propagandised the play to rouse Allied troops before the invasion of Normandy, and Kenneth Branagh pointedly exposed the other, horrifying side of war in 1989, here the battle scenes play out like a cheap aside. Gone are the mounds of bodies, there’s barely a head on a spike to speak of and, at times, the fighting looks as unprofessionally calamitous as that famous cheese rolling competition in Gloucestershire.
With Sam Mendes as an exec producer on the project I’m surprised this happened. As a director in Hollywood, Mendes earned plaudits for his films’ visual beauty and accuracy (barring that floating plastic bag against brick wall of course), but now it seems the text takes precedent, which I guess is fair enough when it comes to the Bard. But, if the BBC is to compete with say, the likes of Game of Thrones and its luxurious cinematography, it’s going to have to learn to put more money into production. After all, The Hollow Crown’s next stop is the US
Still, this being Shakespeare and the climax of the Beeb’s offering to the Cultural Olympiad, it’s forgivable. Henry has now grown out of “the neighbourhood of fruit of baser quality”, into an imposing king. Bounding around on a decidedly more sunny set, he’s now sporting a goatee and a bit more leather-clad swagger.
But when it comes to business — the impending bloodshed with France, the guilt about his father’s original seizure of the crown, the cost of war, the ruthlessness of the Crispin Day’s speech — Hiddleston is in tune to what Branagh once called “the idea of a man in a state of agitation”. This Henry wills his men unto the breach with the teeth of an agitated pitbull, throttling the men around him, but also coaxing them like an American quarterback. A comparison with Olivier and Branagh is unavoidable, and after three long films in his company, I can safely say Hiddleston, with his Cheshire Cat grin, should have audiences enthralled in much the same way.
Ample support is provided by John Hurt as the Chorus (after what sounds like 200 cigarettes). Julie Walters shines brighter than ever, delivering the aching news that our friend Falstaff is no more, and Tom Georgeson, who as Bardolf has staggered through three films with a rosy hue, continues to be a welcome presence.
But towering above all in this series is the sense that Shakespeare has been made more accessible. In interview, Hiddleston revealed that making these films was like the story of Benjamin Button - he started filming the final scenes of Henry V’s life and worked backwards, finishing when Henry is at his most giddy and most unpredictable.
And like the film, this adaptation takes the Bard on a similar journey. The fusty, sometimes convoluted old tetralogy comes out looking and smelling fresher than a… well, you know the rest.