December 27, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

An Age of Kings (BBC/Illuminations)

In 1960, the BBC undertook an extraordinary project. Shakespeare’s eight history plays covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III were broadcast in fifteen hour-long episodes with a single ensemble company. Rehearsed quickly and recorded live, the films have been unavailable commercially until now, in a lavish boxset from Illuminations. Marketed on the strength of its cast (including Robert Hardy, Sean Connery and Judi Dench) and the sheer scale of the project, the boxset makes an appealing addition to any completist’s collection, but there is a great deal of interest here for the newcomer also.

Eight plays do not divide neatly into fifteen episodes, of course, and the casualty here is, criminally, Henry VI Part One. Talbot is entirely cut (thus depriving the play of its heart), and instead comprises a smattering of scenes with Joan and a focus on the initial squabbling between the factions of Gloucester and Winchester, Somerset and York. This episode exists primarily to set up the fuller rendering of the subsequent plays, and frustratingly (as the liner notes point out) the red roses and white appear in monochrome to be exactly the same colour! The standout sequence here, however, is of Joan of Arc’s burning. Captured in the middle of her incantations, Eileen Atkins is quickly bound and sentenced. The camera moves in slowly on her face until she is screaming into the camera in extreme close-up, while smoke fills the studio around her. The moment is haunting, affording an intimacy to her moment of death that outlasts the scene.

Across the other fourteen episodes, a reasonably full text affords the opportunity to see several moments routinely cut from film and stage adaptations in performances that are sometimes workmanlike but frequently nail a specific moment. The camerawork is largely unobtrusive, serving mostly to emphasise specific moments (zooming in to capture Richard II’s (David William) guilt on a mention of the dead Duke of Gloucester, or to ensure that no nuance of Edward IV’s (Julian Glover) gagging collapse is missed following the news of Clarence’s death). The studio sets are cramped but, despite the apologies of the DVD material, rarely impact awfully on the overall impression, and battles are effectively created through extensive use of smoke effects. The quality of the picture is poor, very pixellated around the edges, but this does not adversely affect the experience other than to date the material.

The interpretations throughout are reasonably conservative, especially in Henry V, where a succession of battles led by Hardy’s Henry fails to excite. The battles of the Henry VI plays are much better realised, including a fabulously gruesome moment as Jerome Willis’s Clifford has his right eye gouged out, leaving him wearing an eye patch for all subsequent appearances (though annoyingly, at his death, the patch has slipped to reveal his eye working perfectly well behind it!). Battles regularly result in a one-on-one duel with each man carrying two swords each, particularly those involving Paul Daneman’s Richard of Gloucester, who dies impressively on Bosworth Field, finally clutching and holding his crown aloft before falling backwards into the mud.

The films are best in their scenes of dialogue. The rough-and-ready nature of rehearsal shows as actors occasionally fluff their lines and correct themselves, but largely the command of text is solid, rhetorical and occasionally a little too large for the screen. When it works, it works beautifully. Connery is a particularly strong presence as Hotspur in the first four episodes, his sardonic drawl offering much needed levity and making him a compelling antagonist for Hardy in the Henry IV plays. Humour is handled well throughout the Henry IV plays and, while Frank Pettingell is not a memorable Falstaff, the improvised play-acting scene is genuinely amusing, with a lively Eastcheap crowd creating a boisterous atmosphere in which Hardy’s quiet ‘I do, I will’ sounds harshly.

The Henry VI plays are the strongest when Part Two is reached, with the plays perfectly suited to an ensemble company. Allowing time to develop the Horner, Simpcox and Eleanor episodes in full, director Michael Hayes establishes the warring factions and the individual characters with great clarity, even making use of the prophecies to link Suffolk and Somerset’s deaths together. Richard’s cackling glee as he finds the sign of the Castle Tavern above Somerset’s body is particularly joyous. It is also in these episodes that the directorial approach shows more innovation, such as in the scene in which Henry VI looks out from a window framed by broken glass as the Son mourns the discovery that the body he has plundered is his father.

As Daneman’s Gloucester emerges from the wings, in an energetic but conventional performance of a mocking, joyfully cynical Richard, the intrigue mounts. One of the delights of the production is the use of the end-credit sequences (notably at the end of Henry IV Part Two, as the actors relax out of role while the Epilogue takes the stage), and Richard is the key deliberator here. At the end of Henry VI Part Three he is seen socialising with the rest of the triumphant Yorks, but rescues Clarence from slipping into a butt of wine, leading to a knowing glance at the camera. At the end of Richard III part one, meanwhile, we see him lingering over the sleeping princes. This use of the end credits scenes for dumbshows connecting the parts works fantastically with the episodic format, and one wishes the production had gone further in this respect.

The unifying image of the production is a series of five crowns on a bench, all bearing emblems related to the five major kings from Richard II’s hart to Richard III’s boar. It is difficult to see a unifying interpretation governing the fifteen episodes, and in fact it is the individual episodes, whether Dench’s eloquent attempt to handle the English language as Princess Katherine or John Warner’s indignant French King presiding over Warwick’s second defection, that stand out. Yet the ambitious nature of this production perhaps lends itself better to the moments than to an overall arc, its individual episodes spread too far apart to count on an audience grasping the connective tissue. Taken on its own terms, and with allowances made for the obvious limitations, An Age of Kings captures the style of its time and preserves interesting readings of some rarely staged plays.

Review copy courtesy of Illuminations.

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