Series in Review: The Hollow Crown

A decade ago, one would have argued that the Shakespeare media marketplace lay in the feature film. And you might have been right. As Simon Crowl has argued time and again, Kenneth Branagh was the hope of the industry. Born a street vagabond in Belfast, bred to be a carpenter, Crowl argues that his “genius as a film director is bound up with his powers of synthesis,” particularly in combining his “native Irish bravado with his adopted English tradition.” There have been an increasing number of non-tween Shakespeare’s other than Branagh’s in recent years: Taymor’s The Tempest and Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Today, however, the real bulk of the work (outside brick-and-mortar playhouses) is being done on the silver screen. The Shakespeare cinema industry seems to have taken up residence in television, namely the mini-series.

The most important of these recent incarnations is The Tudors. While Wyatt and Holbein were frequent guests, the show never got far enough into Elizabeth’s reign to introduce playwrights. (There are some excellent moments dramatizing medieval interludes and other kinds of court performances, however.) Demonstrating that there was a market for the Renaissance on television, perhaps not the length of an entire seasonalthough the CW’s Reign is putting this to the testthere was certainly room for the miniseries. There had been precedents: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), The Shadow of the Tower (1971), and Elizabeth R (1972). (Who could forget the emerald green velvet lining of the box set to Elizabeth R?) Many of these were produced as collaborative projects between BBC and PBS, with significant support from cultural institutions. They were one-off projects in the service of their merits rather than the revenue they might produce. The ’60s and ’70s was an especially sparse time for live-action material on PBS. The bulk of their properties were made up of children’s programming like Sesame StreetMr. Rodger’s NeighborhoodElectric Company, and The Wonderful World of Disneymuch of which extremely influential in the development of the Kid’s market. In an age where the live-action drama reigns supreme whether it be basic cable, online streaming content providers, or the premium channels, the period/costume drama appeal is growing, and Shakespeare with it.

In the last year, The Hollow Crown and The White Queen vied for attention across these markets by using the miniseries format. As White Queen aired this past summer on STARz, I blogged extensively on the series’ narrative development. It recounts the War of the Roses by way of Phillipa Gregory’s feminist bent, tracing machinations sovereign and common through the eyes of Elizabeth Rivers, Edward IV’s queen. White Queen was rather first-wave in its gender investments, so it was interesting to see Reign on the air a month later with a refreshing third-wave posture in its version of the girlhood of Mary Queen of Scots. At the same time did PBS run The Hollow Crown as a four-part series through the end of September and into October. Featuring two generations of England’s best classical talent, the series professes itself as a teleplay, not an adaptation, of Shakespeare’s Henriad. Following three kingsRichard II (Ben Whishaw), Henry IV (Jeremy Ironswho’s son, Max Irons played the role of Edward IV in White Queen), and Henry V (Tom Hiddleston)the series uses the conceit of the ‘hollow crown’ to organize the ideological content of these performances.

The title conceit comes from a quotation in Richard II. Realizing he has lost England and any sway he might have had over the commons or peers of the realm, Richard looks out across a beach to his few remaining retainers and commands:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin.

Richard lists here all the kinds of monarchal stories one might tell, of poisoning, war, and usurpation, arguing the life of a king always ends the same way: with murder, by the very crown they wear. Insignificant without a wearer, Richard is coming to the realization that it is not the hat that makes the man. To wear the crown is both to tempt death and forget one’s own mortality. It is the crucial prop with which to perform king, to personate kingship. The series foregrounds this question, what makes a king, by providing us three different answers in Richard, his usurper Henry and Jr., in the trappings they adopt in order to, as Shakespeare says, “monarchize.”

In the next couple weeks i’ll be reviewing the series in three parts based on the American DVD release by PBS under their Great Performances series. In part, it will be a nice distraction while we wait out their conclusion to the fourth season of Downton Abbey. It is also a compelling next iteration in the Renaissance miniseries fad crossing the airways, a glut of which was available this past fall. A trailer to whet your whistle:

Slow and steady “Macbeth” wins the race

This past week PBS aired director Rupert Goold’s filmic imagining of Macbeth, part of the Great Performances series and the companion piece to the earlier Hamlet, both featuring Patrick Stewart. The production was nearly three hours long: a very pragmatic exposition, Stewart developed slowly a sane and considered Macbeth who sparked with madness rather than worked up to it as in a crescendo. I wonder if the successful stage production also took the near three-hour duration, as the film did not take advantage of the creative act that is adaptation (and abbreviation), which, on the other hand, meant the film really trusted audiences to stick with it despite the slow exposition.

The characterization of the weird sisters typically sets the tone for a production of Macbeth. In recent adaptations over the last few years we have seen bin men, traditional mystics, and now WWII-era nurses with semi-monastic habits. Their presence in the film–as food servers, nurses, in the morgue, or performing their supernatural obligations–is ubiquitous and threaded throughout nearly all the ensemble scenes. Their presence, like Macbeth’s madness and the influence of fate, is everywhere and at all times. This clever “threading” of the witches throughout the production threw into relief Macbeth as an individual, his skill as a leader as well as his ever-present conscience.

The magnification of Macbeth as a character somewhat overwhelmed the ensemble’s cohesion, which was one of the strongest qualities of the recent PBS Hamlet. This production was clearly one earmarked for Stewart–a directorial choice that cuts both ways. It provided Stewart with some much-deserved space for moments of virtuosity, but also meant we had to deal with his character for nearly the entire film, solid, which does get wearisome. I was confused initially with his casting: Stewart turns 70 this year, and while the final scenes displayed muscles that matched a worn professional soldier’s might, his delivery was that of an older, more patient, more considered man. This may also have been my conditioning to more youthful casting choices for a play that does not require really one or the other. Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth) thankfully wrought a powerful performance that balanced his deliberateness with a sense of force, sensuality, and passion.

The most interesting choice on Goold’s part for the production was the continual emphasis on food, another visual element that worked its way into nearly every scene somehow (and when not, different kinds of appetites were definitely at the fore). This is true for two scenes in particular. First, Macbeth makes a sandwich while he gives his orders to the two murders as to how they shall murder MacDuff and his son, Fleance. At the end he shares the sandwich with the murders, presenting a dramatic contrast between the mundane (of making lunch) and the extraordinary (killing an entire family). During the Dinner Scene–positioned as the catharsis of the play for this rendering–the camera also focused on the fleshy food and red wine that the ghost of Banquo has to maneuver as he walks across the table towards Macbeth. The use of food, especially in terms of luxury and gluttony, highlights one of the central premises of the play: namely, the confusing or mistaking of the natural, ordinary, and predictable for the supernatural.

While a strong and thoughtful performance, a viewer has to be completely committed to watching it, at times more for Goold and Stewart’s execution rather than entertainment or pleasure. Knowing, this, the production is absolutely worth the watch, particularly for its unique version of Macbeth as a central character and the repositioning of traditional production emphases. One could even call this a radical Macbeth as a production opting for the thoughtful rather than the razzel-dazzle.

  • Watch this film online in its entirety at PBS’s Great Performances website.
  • This film is also available for purchase in its standard DVD and Blu-Ray formats.

UPDATE 12 OCTOBER 2010: You can now also watch the really interesting interview with Patrick Stewart that aired immediately after the production online as well (which I have included below).