An Age Of Kings – Episode Nine – The Red Rose and the White (Henry VI Part One)

eileen atkins
Eileen Atkins

Henry VI Part One is generally considered to be the weakest of Shakespeare’s history cycle.  This might explain why, uniquely, it was the only play adapted for An Age of Kings to be condensed down to a single episode. This obviously meant that major cuts had to be made – the exploits of Talbot in France are completely removed as are all the battle scenes.  What remains are the verbal skirmishes between the nobles in England as they symbolically choose either white or red roses to mark their allegiance.

With the battles in France excised, what’s left are the scenes between the Dauphin (Jerome Willis) and Joan of Arc (Eileen Atkins).  These could have been cut too, which would have allowed all the events of the play to be centered in England, but I’m glad they were kept in.  Atkins gives a striking performance – her Joan is confident and self-assured and she easily captivates the Dauphin.

Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd’s daughter,
My wit untrain’d in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun’s parching heat display’d my cheeks,
God’s mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal’d herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless’d with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.

One of the drawbacks of such intensive cuts is that it severly reduces her role.  But the little we have of Joan is very impressive, all the more so since up until now there have been few decent roles for women in the history cycle.  Director Michael Hayes also creates some impressive shots – for example, when Joan’s nearly defeated and attempting to summon up demonic spirits to aid her, he zooms into her eyes and superimposes dancing figures onto her irises.  Such a trick would be commonplace now, but to achieve such an effect then and particlarly during a live broadcast is quite noteworthy.  Joan’s death is also another stand-out moment.  The flames are quite effective, as are her ear-splitting screams as the picture fades to black.

Back in England, the nobles are taking sides.  Given the cuts to the play and the number of characters we see, this isn’t particularity easy to follow and is probably one of the major drawbacks of condensing the play.  What is clear is that the Duke of Gloucester (John Ringham) is the protector of the young King, Henry VI (Terry Scully), and Winchester (Robert Lang) opposes Gloucester.

Both Ringham and Lang (familiar faces from previous episodes) give good performances and Scully manages (via his high-pitched tones) to indicate Henry’s youth and inexperience.  Another notable appearance is that of Mary Morris as Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou.  Margaret would prove to be a major figure in the upcoming plays and Morris impresses here as she would do later on.  She was always an unusual actresses, with a style all of her own, and there’s more than a hint of that here.

Effectively, The Red Rose and the White stands as a prologue for the battles of the Wars of the Roses which will run for the remaining six episodes of the series.  It may not be the most distinguished part of An Age Of Kings, but thanks to some fine performances (particularly Eileen Atkins) it’s not without interest.

Next up – Episode Ten – The Fall of the Protector

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An Age Of Kings – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers (Henry V)

band

The Band of Brothers concludes the adaptation of Henry V.  It opens with the Chorus’ description of the English camp on the night before the Battle of Agincourt.  Henry (in disguise) moves around the camp to gauge the thoughts of his men.  One of them, Williams (another fine performance from Frank Windsor), is most eloquent on the subject of whether they are right to face the French on the following day.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection.

The next dawn dawns and Henry has one final chance to rouse his men before they do battle.  This is another of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches – the St Crispian’s Day speech – and Robert Hardy attacks it full-bloodily.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Whilst we’ve discussed before the problems of staging battles with such limited production resources, it’s disappointing that the Battle of Agincourt is so limply presented.  There surely should have been a way to present it better than this.  We see a shot of feet walking on the spot facing right and then switch to another shot of feet walking on the spot facing left.  The shot then cuts back and forward several times – which is meant to illustrate the two armies marching towards each other.  Then there’s a tight shot of soldiers engaged in a very slow battle, whilst Henry is placed in the foreground, looking towards the camera.  The whole battle sequence lasts only twenty seconds or so.

There’s a number of cuts to the text made – some scenes with Pistol, Gower and Fluellen are excised and Henry’s reaction (“I was not angry since I came to France. Until this instant.”) now occurs immediately after we’ve seen the luggage boys killed, which is used to underscore why he is so keen to ensure that not one Frenchman is left alive.

But the battle’s over, although it takes a little while for it to sink in. When Henry realises he’s won, he sinks to his knees and accepts the congratulations of Fluellen (Kenneth Farrington) who claims Henry as a true-born Welshman. With so much of Fluellen’s role cut (including his duel with Williams in Act Four, Scene Eight) it’s difficult for Farrington to make much of an impression – but at least he manages it here.

The confrontation between Fluellen and the “turkey cock” Pistol in Act Five, Scene One doesn’t play terribly well. Fluellen seems too aggressive and Pistol (George A. Cooper) plays it too broadly. It really needed a lighter comic touch than was presented here.  And given that many of Fluellen’s lines have been cut, it probably would have been better to lose this as well, since it really only works when we’ve seen more of Fluellen.

Things improve when we move to the French court and Henry attempts to woo Katherine. As with Signs of War, Judi Dench impresses as Katherine.  After their courtship, the Chorus returns to being the play to its conclusion by resting a hand on a coffin which contains Henry.  So as the Chorus concludes the tale of Henry V, Henry VI is waiting in the wings.

Next up – Episode Eight – The Red Rose and the White

An Age Of Kings – Episode Seven – Signs of War (Henry V)

Judi Dench
Judi Dench

Episodes seven and eight of An Age Of Kings adapt Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays.  Possibly part of the reason for its appeal is that, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, it is open to various different interpretations.  It can be played as a straightforward heroic piece (as this adaption does) but it also contains darker sequences which explore both the folly and the bitter consequences of war.

The Henry presented across these two episodes is a fairly unambiguous character (similar to Olivier’s performance in his 1944 film) with many of the more questionable points concerning his conduct either downplayed or cut.  But although there are some trims, the bulk of the play is presented here very well – especially considering the limitations of the television studio.

Shakespeare was obviously aware of the problems that existed in attempting to re-create the battle of Agincourt on stage, so the Chorus appears at the beginning of the play to crave the audience’s indulgence in exercising their imagination.

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Given that this television play would also need to call on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the Chorus is retained and, as played by William Squire, he is able to take us through the early action and operates as a narrator.  A more filmic dramatisation could have dispensed with this device, but the theatrical nature of this play suits the Chorus well.

Many familiar faces from previous episodes (John Ringham, Frank Windsor, Julian Glover, Jerome Willis, etc) fill out the minor roles and there are also several new faces, most notably Judi Dench as Katherine.  She has a single scene here, played with Stephanie Bidmead, and delivered entirely in French – but she manages to light up the screen even in such a short space of time.

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays and one of the most famous speeches comes in the middle of this episode.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

This is a speech that defines Henry and Robert Hardy delivers it with passion and relish. The staging of the scene is done very effectively – the camera is placed behind a group of soldiers and Henry stands directly in front of them.  The camera therefore acts as a member of the crowd and the tight nature of the shooting helps to disguise the small scale of the set and the limited number of extras.

By the end of the episode we have reached the conclusion of Act III and the fields of Agincourt beckon.

Next Up – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers

An Age Of Kings – Episode Six – Uneasy Lies The Head (Henry IV Part Two)

henry iv part 2

Uneasy Lies The Head concludes the tale of Henry IV Part Two.  As the episode opens, a sickly Henry (Tom Fleming) is still awake in the early hours of the morning and muses on why everybody should be asleep but he.

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

As with the previous episodes, Fleming is very good and whilst he doesn’t have a great deal to do (this scene and his deathbed scene are his two main moments) he’s still compelling to watch.

But as with The New Conspiracy the focus of the piece (at the start anyway) is concerned with Falstaff’s misadventures.  But he’s met his comic match when he comes up against Justice Shallow (William Squire).  Squire delivers a fine performance as the fussy, reflective Shallow and he’s one of the highlights of Uneasy Lies The Head.

The heart of the piece, though, is the death of the King and Hal’s elevation to the throne.  Believing the King to be dead, Hal takes away the crown, but Henry still has breath in his body and is dismayed to find his crown missing.  Hal explains his actions (some quality acting here from both Robert Hardy and Tom Fleming) and they are reconciled just before Henry’s death.

Once Hal has become King Henry V there is one important matter to be dealt with – that of Falstaff.  Although I can’t confess to have been greatly enamoured with Frank Pettingell’s performance during the last few episodes, he does manage to capture very well Falstaff’s shock and hurt when Henry publicly disowns him.  Hardy’s delivery here is spot on – and his journey from wastrel Prince to King Henry V is completed.

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

As the credits roll, there’s one more surprise.  We see the actors removing their stage clothes and talking amongst themselves whilst the camera gradually focuses on William Squire.  Squire removes the white wig and false nose of Shallow and after the credits have finished he steps forward to deliver the epilogue of the play which promises the return of Falstaff (something which didn’t happen as Shakespeare obviously changed his mind – Falstaff dies off-stage in Henry V).

The breaking of the fourth wall is somehow in keeping with the theatrical tradition of the piece and it’s an interesting conclusion to the episode.

Next up – Episode Seven – Signs of War

An Age Of Kings – Episode Five – The New Conspiracy (Henry IV Part Two)

Frank Pettingell as Sir John Falstaff
Frank Pettingell as Sir John Falstaff

The New Conspiracy picks up from where The Road To Shrewsbury left off.  The rebellion, lead by Hotspur, has been crushed but the danger to the King is far from over.  The Earl of Northumberland (George A. Cooper) and others still plot to overthrow him – but these machinations are very much placed in the background as this part of the play focuses on Falstaff and his friends.

Any scenes with Falstaff tend to be played very broadly, but Frank Pettingell does have some good actors to play off against.  Angela Baddeley (best known for playing Mrs Bridges in Upstairs Downstairs) has several lovely scenes opposite him, as does Hermione Baddeley as Doll Tearsheet.  George A. Cooper also manages to change performances totally (he’s the Earl of Northumberland at the start of the episode and the rampant Anicent Pistol at the end).  Geoffrey Bayldon, as the Lord Chief Justice, also gets to cross swords with Falstaff.  And Bayldon, like the majority of the actors, continues to impress me.

Robert Hardy, as Prince Hal, doesn’t appear until mid-way through the episode, but he still dominates proceedings.  There’s a certain steel in Hardy’s performance when he believes that Poins has been ill-using him (Falstaff writes that Poins has made it known that Hal will marry his sister, Nell – much to Hal’s surprise).  He also confides to Poins the reason why he isn’t outwardly grieving about his father’s ill-health.

PRINCE HENRY

By this hand thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s
book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and
persistency: let the end try the man. But I tell
thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so
sick: and keeping such vile company as thou art
hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.

POINS

The reason?

PRINCE HENRY

What wouldst thou think of me, if I should weep?

POINS

I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.

PRINCE HENRY

It would be every man’s thought; and thou art a
blessed fellow to think as every man thinks: never
a man’s thought in the world keeps the road-way
better than thine: every man would think me an
hypocrite indeed.

Although The New Conspiracy feels something like an interlude before the main action, it still moves along quite nicely – and is another step in the journey of Hal from Prince to King.

Next up – Episode Six – Uneasy Lies The Head

An Age Of Kings – Episode Four – The Road To Shrewsbury (Henry IV Part One)

hal

The Road To Shrewsbury opens with Hotspur (Sean Connery) enduring the boastful claims of his ally Owen Glendower (William Squire).  Although Glendower isn’t a large part, it’s a scene-stealing gift for any decent actor and Squire certainly takes advantage.  Although Squire was born in Neath, Glamorgan, few of his more familiar roles (he was probably best known for appearing opposite Edward Woodward in the Thames series of Callan) called on him to use a Welsh accent, so this is a good opportunity for him to act broadly Welsh.  Glendower is certainly a character that has, shall we say, a good opinion of himself.

Cousin, of many men
I do not bear these crossings. Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.

Hotspur seems unimpressed with such hyperbole and Connery plays this opening section well – capturing the mocking and insolent nature of Hotspur, which still manages to earn the respect of Glendower.

On the other side, Hal (Robert Hardy) is re-united with his father, the King (Tom Fleming).  Although Hal initially seems to be the same casual character we saw in Rebellion from the North, very quickly it becomes apparent that he’s now prepared to put aside his dissolute past and grasp his destiny.

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene’er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet.
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.

Although Connery is more central to the episode than Hardy (at least until the closing fifteen minutes or so), Hardy is more than able to make a favourable impression during these scenes with the King, and Tom Fleming as Henry IV continues to impress.

Battle scenes throughout An Age of Kings are always somewhat problematic.  The nature of live recording, small casts and the limited studio space are all factors which need to be appreciated.  There are a few interesting moments though – initially shots of the battlefield are overlaid on the faces of Hotspur and Hal, for example.

Elsewhere, the viewer is required to use their imagination that while they can hear an army offscreen, they can only see a handful of soldiers (this, of course, is a similar experience to watching the play on the stage).  Eventually, Hotspur and Hal meet and duel to the death.  Their sword-fight (not overly convincing it must be said) is inter-cut with shots of dead bodies on the battlefield and it’s noticeable that Hal’s killing thrust isn’t seen.  Was it deemed too violent for the times or did the camera just miss it?

Director Michael Hayes elects to end the episode on the battlefield dead, this time with snow overlaid, which is quite an effective ending.  Henry IV Part One has never been a favourite play of mine and this adaptation, whilst solid enough, hasn’t really changed my opinion on it, but it’s well worth watching for Connery and Hardy.

Next Up – Episode Five – The New Conspiracy

An Age Of Kings – Episode Three – Rebellion from the North (Henry IV Part One)

Hotspur (Sean Connery)
Hotspur (Sean Connery)

Episodes three and four of An Age of Kings contains virtually all of Henry IV Part One.  As episode three opens, we see that Henry IV (Tom Fleming) is still unsettled from the death of Richard II.  And a crusade to the Holy Land has to be postponed when trouble flares with Scotland and Wales.

The Percy family who helped him to the throne are becoming increasingly discontent, particularly Harry Percy (Hotspur), played by Sean Connery.  To add to Henry’s woes, his son Hal (Robert Hardy) is content to idle his time away in the taverns, consorting with the likes of Sir John Falstaff (Frank Pettineill).  But with Hotspur leading a rebellion against the King, Hal has to put aside his wastrel living and the two are fated to meet on the field of battle.

The opening line of the play is Henry’s “So shaken as we are, so wan with care” and this seems to be the case as Henry appears visibly aged and staggers when leaving at the end of Act One Scene One, holding onto his chair for support. His age and infirmity contrast with the youth and vigor of both Hotspur and Hal.

Rebellion from the North is driven by the performances of Connery and Hardy. Although he was not then, and never became, an experienced Shakespearean actor, Connery isn’t out of place here – as his charisma shines through.  He has several key moments in this episode such as when he confronts the King.  There’s an interesting shot as Hotspur walks around the table and blocks the King from our view. Given the somewhat frantic nature of live performance, this could be an error or it may have been an intentional move. His reply to Henry’s accusation that he failed to hand over the majority of the prisoners captured in a recent squirsish is a highlight of Connery’s performance.

My liege, I did deny no prisoners.
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress’d,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap’d
Show’d like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
And ‘twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took’t away again;
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff; and still he smiled and talk’d,
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He call’d them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He question’d me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty’s behalf.

Whilst Hotspur dreams of conquest, young Prince Hal seems to have no further ambitions at the start of the play than purely pleasurable ones.  Hardy is effective as the wastrel Prince, although his performance does undercut the text from time to time as he already seems to have grown tired of his dissolute life and the company he’s been keeping.  Pettingell’s Falstaff is presented less as a close confident and more as a convenient crony since Hal is already biding the time when he will return to his father’s side.

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

If Frank Pettingell is a slightly disappointing Falstaff (he lacks charm and humour and comes over as something of a bore), then Sean Connery and Robert Hardy are more than adequate compensation.  Running for just under 80 minutes, the episode ends at Act Two, which leads us onto the battlefield.

Next Up – Episode Four – The Road to Shrewsbury