Tag Archives: Great Performances

A new Sleeping Beauty in the manner Bourne

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North star as Princess Aurora and her selfless lover, Leo, in 'Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty.'

Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is awakened from her long sleep by Leo (Dominic North), who has given up his mortality to be with her, in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,’ a ‘Great Performances’ presentation premiering tonight on many PBS affiliates.


The genius hailed by The New Yorker as “the most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World” wakes up a ballet classic in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a Great Performances presentation airing tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check listings in your area).
Bourne explains during the two brief but illuminating interview segments that bookend this Sleeping Beauty that his family didn’t listen to much classical music when he was growing up. As in his earlier productions of the two other Tchaikovsky dance masterworks – The Nutcracker, which Bourne set in a grim Dickensian orphanage, and Swan Lake, which featured an all-male corps de ballet of swans – Bourne’s principal focus is on telling a story that is dramatically arresting while still satisfying fans of the piece in its traditional form.
When he sized up the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which dates from the 14th century, Bourne immediately noticed that, in terms of its love story, the yarn was a resounding flop.
“This prince kisses her and wakes her up, she looks at him, and next thing you know, they’re getting married, someone she’s never even met,” Bourne says. “You don’t really feel anything at all.”
Instead of using the traditional fairy-tale period setting, Bourne opens his production of Sleeping Beauty in London’s Victorian era, circa 1890 (the year of the ballet’s premiere). In the first act, we encounter the rambunctious baby Princess Aurora in the form of an intricately designed marionette that causes the palace staff endless headaches. In the next act, when we meet the 21-year-old Aurora (Hannah Vassallo), she’s a spirited, almost tomboyish young woman who has flouted convention and fallen in love with Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener. Obviously, that enhances the love-story element in the ballet, but it presented Bourne with another conundrum: If Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what happens to poor Leo?
“Aurora has fallen in love with someone who then has the problem of trying to stay alive for her when she wakes up,” Bourne says of his and Leo’s dilemma.
Happily, as it turns out, the production’s setting roughly coincided with London’s obsession with Gothic literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was written in 1897), and Bourne found his audacious solution while watching HBO’s True Blood. Instead of pretty ladies in pastel tutus, the good fairies of Sleeping Beauty would be a family of benign vampires in elegant yet slightly moldering garments, led by the powerful Count Lilac (Christopher Marney). That concept also gave Leo a poignant way to demonstrate his love for Aurora, by surrendering his very mortality in order to stay by her side.
Like all of his other productions, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is jam-packed with fantastic stage images, such as the stormy entrance of the dark fairy Carabosse (Adam Maskell) and her minions, who look like one of the Furies crossed with a satyr. When she pronounces her curse on the baby Aurora, her dark prophecy is mimed by an Aurora double with a blank, mannequin-like face. It’s chillingly effective, as is the moment in the second act when Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc (Maskell again), activates the curse not with the tainted spindle of a spinning wheel, but via a thorn on a black rose that was his late mother’s favored calling card.
In traditional productions of Sleeping Beauty, once the prince has awakened his sleeping beauty, the story effectively is over, apart from another half hour or so of celebratory dances at the royal wedding. Bourne, however, interjects yet another plot twist that sends the narrative in a totally unexpected direction and keeps the suspense going almost until the very end of the ballet.
A press release from Great Performances describes Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty as “a gothic fairy tale for all ages,” and that’s largely true. Bourne’s earlier productions of, say, The Car Man (adapted from Bizet’s opera Carmen) and Swan Lake may have raised some eyebrows with their unmistakable currents of homoeroticism, but there’s nothing in this Sleeping Beauty to frighten the horses or, more pertinently, parents of youngsters. Very small fry who know and love the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, however, probably will be very confused by many of Bourne’s somewhat eccentric narrative changes.
There’s no denying, though, that Bourne has given one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballets a welcome dose of creative caffeine. I won’t point out all the ingenious little character touches this master choreographer comes up with, but I have to mention a moment that occurs early in Act Three, set in contemporary (2011) London. The massive, locked iron gates surrounding Aurora’s palace have become a tourist destination, and as guidebook-toting visitors take selfies for their Instagram pages, a young woman tenderly sticks a commemorative rose into the metal bars. As she does so, she pricks her finger and fairly swoons, overcome by the cosmic romantic significance of the accident. It’s a tiny moment that’s both funny and touching.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Matthew Bourne’s head, which apparently is the scene of constant and boundless creativity. I’m just glad that every now and then I get to visit there.
Count Lilac and Caradoc

Count Lilac (Christopher Marney, left) tries to vanquish the evil Caradoc (Adam Maskell) at the climax of ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty.’

PBS’ glorious Dave Clark Five special is a must-see

The Dave Clark Five

Lead vocalist/keyboardist Mike Smith, guitarist Lenny Davidson, drummer Dave Clark, bassist Rick Huxley and saxophonist Denis Payton (from left) made up The Dave Clark Five during the band’s ’60s heyday.


The Dave Clark Five and Beyond – Glad All Over, a lively and music-packed two-hour Great Performances special premiering tonight on PBS, reminds us that three, not two, truly great British bands came out of the vibrant ’60s music scene.
Everyone remembers The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, of course, but a generation or two of American music lovers may not remember The Dave Clark Five, a group that had a phenomenal international run from 1964 to 1970 and powerfully influenced some of today’s leading musical artists, including Bruce Springsteen.
During their heyday, the band actually rivaled The Beatles in terms of both popularity and professional credibility, as fans debated the merits of the former’s so-called “Tottenham Sound” vs. the latter band’s well-known “Mersey Beat.” The Dave Clark Five may have been more clean-cut and conventionally handsome – especially drummer Clark and his frontman vocalist, Mike Smith – but as Springsteen and others note during the special, there was a power and a raw edge to their performances that neither of the other two superbands could match.
“It was just a much bigger sound than either the Stones or The Beatles,” Springsteen says.
Clark originally formed the group, comprised of gym buddies from the Tottenham community in North London, just as a fun way to earn some pocket money. The band quickly gained a following during their appearances at a London club, and shot to superstardom in 1964 after an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Although The Beatles had appeared on Sullivan’s show a few weeks earlier, The Dave Clark Five eventually would rack up a record-breaking 18 appearances on that hit variety series, and they embarked on a major U.S. tour in May 1964, before either The Beatles or the Stones, packing huge arenas everywhere they went. Their celebrity fans included Lucille Ball (who filmed a TV special with them), Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
When they weren’t touring, the band was in the studio, cranking out a series of best-selling albums and hit singles such as “Glad All Over,” “Because,” “I Like It Like That,” “Catch Us If You Can” and “Over and Over.” For a time The Dave Clark Five was even more successful in the U.S. than in their native Britain, until the group, exhausted, decided to suspend touring in 1967 and work exclusively from the U.K. After selling 100 million records, The Dave Clark Five disbanded in 1970.
The PBS special includes extensive performance footage from The Dave Clark Five’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, much of it not seen in decades, as well as home movies by members of the group. There are also newly filmed interviews with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Steven Van Zandt, Gene Simmons, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick, as well as fans Whoopi Goldberg and Sir Ian McKellen, among others.
A major highlight, however, is extensive footage from Tom Hank’s eloquent and ardent tribute to the band when they belatedly were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. By then, two of its members, the charismatic Smith and saxophonist Denis Payton, had died, but bass player Rick Huxley and guitarist Lenny Davidson joined Clark on stage to accept the prestigious honor before a cheering crowd.
Clark himself wrote, produced and directed The Dave Clark Five and Beyond – Glad All Over, which amounts to a nostalgic valentine to the four bandmates he clearly cherished, as well as reminding us of the great music this band produced. If you lived through their glory days, as I did, this special is an unforgettable time capsule. If you don’t remember The Dave Clark Five, it will be a revelation.
As always, be sure to check your local TV listings to confirm when this special is airing in your local market.
Tom Hanks and Dave Clark

Tonight’s special includes extensive footage from fan and friend Tom Hanks’ (left) eloquent tribute to The Dave Clark Five during the band’s 2008 installation into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

PBS delivers a valentine from London’s National Theatre

Judi Dench performs 'Send in the Clowns.'

Judi Dench performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ during ‘ National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage,’ tonight on ‘Great Performances.’


If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Rosenkrantz in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’

At 70, you’re still doin’ fine, ‘Oklahoma!’

'Great Performances' presents an encore telecast of its 2003 presentation of 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!,' with Hugh Jackman as Curly.

Hugh Jackman (Curly), Maureen Lipman (Aunt Eller) and Josefina Gabrielle (Laurey) star in a ‘Great Performances’ encore telecast of ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!’


As Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marks the 70th anniversary this year of its Broadway premiere, tonight Great Performances offers a very welcome encore presentation (in high definition for the first time) of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed staging of the show, which first aired on PBS in 2003.
Hugh Jackman heads the mostly British cast as Curly, the role that propelled him to international stardom after Nunn’s production opened at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1998. Still largely unknown at the time outside his native Australia, Jackman quickly had female theatergoers swooning, with The London Daily Telegraph describing the actor as “6 feet, 3 inches of perfect tanned cowboy.”
Yet this well-received production, which transferred to Broadway in 2002, was no mere star vehicle. Oklahoma! was widely regarded as little more than a quaint and charming period piece when Nunn began pondering his revival. After all, the plot mostly revolves around the burning question of which boy a pretty young girl is going to let take her to a picnic.
Nunn, however, recognized conflict and complexity in the show’s homespun characters, especially when it came to Jud Fry, the lonely and inarticulate hired hand vying with Curly for the attentions of Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle), the show’s heroine. Over the years since Oklahoma! premiered, Jud had become a stock villain, someone who existed only to pose a threat to Curly and Laurey’s happiness. In Nunn’s revival, the character gained a new, almost tragic stature through the casting of American actor Shuler Hensley, whose shattering performance earned him an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in New York. It helped that Nunn also restored Jud’s often-cut solo, “Lonely Room,” near the end of Act One, a number that chillingly underscored Jud’s obsession with Laurey.
Probably the most controversial change that Nunn made, however, was his decision to hire five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman to reconceive Agnes DeMille’s legendary choreography, which previously had been considered a production element as integral to Oklahoma! as the music of Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Stroman’s revisions included rethinking one of DeMille’s career masterpieces, the dream ballet for Laurey that climaxes Act One, in which DeMille had dancers doubling for the singers playing Laurey and Curly. In Jackman and Gabrielle, however, Stroman was blessed to have two singers who were accomplished dancers, a strength she exploited in a dance number that combines romantic lyricism and chilling violence.
As I recently rewatched this Oklahoma!, I was surprised to note that it clocks in at close to three hours, although it certainly doesn’t feel long. Anthony Ward, who also designed the costumes, came up with a spare but evocative set that emphasizes seemingly vast stretches of space, suggesting both a dreamscape and the sweeping plains of the Oklahoma territory at the start of the 20th century. It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that the score contains one Broadway standard after another, from Curly’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to the love duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” and Ado Annie’s comic complaint “I Cain’t Say No.”
Oklahoma! may have been the first true masterwork from the Broadway dream team that also would give us South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music, but as Nunn and company remind us, this 1943 musical still has a bracing freshness and power to surprise us after all these years.
Josefina Gabrielle and Hugh Jackman are pioneer lovers Laurey and Curly in 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!' on PBS.

Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and Curly (Hugh Jackman) sing ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ from ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!,’ airing tonight on ‘Great Performances.’

Neil Patrick Harris in good ‘Company’ on PBS

'Great Performances' presents a new concert staging of Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' Friday night on PBS.

Neil Patrick Harris leads an all-star cast in a staged concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical ‘Company’ from ‘Great Performances’ Friday night on PBS.


Emmy Award winner Neil Patrick Harris heads an all-star cast in one of the most iconic musicals about the Big Apple ever written as Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ with the New York Philharmonic Friday night on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
Filmed during a staged concert production at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, this revival of Company marks the second time Great Performances has presented Sondheim’s 1970 musical (with book by George Furth) about Robert, a 35-year-old commitment-phobic Manhattan bachelor, and his gaggle of frustrated girlfriends and meddling married chums. Director John Doyle’s intimate, Tony-winning 2006 revival, anchored by a riveting central performance from Raul Esparza (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), found the show’s cast members doubling as musicians, with each performer playing an instrument.
This new production, staged by Lonny Price, features Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani conducting members of the Philharmonic playing Jonathan Tunick’s original 1970 orchestrations arranged for a 35-piece orchestra. The sound is lusher, fuller and far more extroverted, giving all the musical colors in Sondheim’s ground-breaking score their full due.
Among the actors cast as Robert’s (Harris) married friends are two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Katie Finneran (The Michael J. Fox Show), Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), while Robert’s on-stage girlfriends include Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Tony Award winner Anika Nona Rose, whom fans of The Good Wife will recognize from her recurring role as Peter Florrick’s formidable political nemesis Wendy Scott Carr.
When Company opened in 1970, some Broadway theatergoers and critics were put off by the show’s acerbic perspective on marriage. Even the most devoted of the couples orbiting their mutual friend Robert had at least fleeting moments of ambivalence about staying together, while Robert’s growing interest in finding a mate was rooted mainly in his fears about winding up alone. In the four decades since Company opened, however, the national culture largely has caught up with the show’s somewhat cynical, certainly cautious attitudes toward love and marriage.
Even during its original run, though, almost everyone agreed that Sondheim’s music and lyrics were dazzling, shot through with a wit and sophistication that came to be the composer-lyricist’s calling cards. It wasn’t just Sondheim’s audacious wordplay, which in one song rhymed “personable” with “coercin’ a bull.” It was also the way this music felt fresh and of-the-moment, reflecting the show’s New York setting. In “Another Hundred People,” an Act One number that quickly became my favorite song in the show, an electronic musical pulse deedle-de-deedles away repeatedly in the orchestra while a character sings about living in this “city of strangers,” where new faces are arriving 24/7:

Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

To the college freshman I was when the original cast recording of Company came out in 1970, this was a Broadway musical that sounded like no other, and it wasn’t long before I was schlepping that LP with its purple cover from door to door in my dorm like a deranged Jehovah’s Witness, urging my friends to take a listen.
Sondheim was only 40 when Company opened, with such masterworks as Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George ahead of him. He’s now 83, which explains in part why theater companies and producers are falling all over themselves these days to mount revivals and tributes to his brilliant body of work. This delightful but still surprisingly moving new Company from Great Performances gives us a welcome chance to look back to that moment in Sondheim’s career where everything started to come together in a thrilling way.

‘Moby-Dick’ a whale of an opera on PBS

Composer Jake Heggie's opera 'Moby-Dick' comes to life on 'Great Performances' using multimedia techniques including projections to suggest action at sea.

An operatic adaptation of ‘Moby-Dick’ uses ingenious projections to suggest sailors tossed about in fragile boats tonight on PBS.


With all due respect to literary scholars and critics over the past couple of centuries, I’ve long suspected that when Mark Twain wrote that “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read,” he must have been thinking about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. I also feel pretty confident that if you asked a random group of folks, even PBS viewers, whether there is anything they would rather do less than re-read Moby-Dick, many of them might reply, “Yes, spend two and a half hours watching an operatic version of Moby-Dick.
As it turns out, however, in the right hands, Melville’s sprawling novel can make for a whale of a musical-theatrical experience, as evidenced by composer Jake Heggie’s frequently thrilling adaptation premiering tonight on PBS’ Great Performances (check local listings). Taped in conjunction with the opera’s premiere a year ago at the San Francisco Opera, the production is headed by tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who starred as Siegfried in the most recent PBS telecast of Wagner’s Ring cycle, as Ahab, the obsessed captain of the whaler Pequod, who is prepared to risk everything to capture and kill the elusive great white whale of the title.
The Florida-born Heggie, 52, is a hot property in the opera world these days for his well-received previous operatic adaptations of the books and films The End of the Affair and Dead Man Walking. For Moby-Dick, the composer collaborated with Gene Scheer, who faced the near-impossible task of whittling Melville’s occasionally tedious seafaring epic into a taut, backside-friendly libretto. Director Leonard Foglia’s multi-media staging also makes vibrant use of projections to convey the sea churning against the sides of the whaling ship.
Under the baton of SFO’s principal guest conductor Patrick Summers, Heggie’s colorful score reflects the confidence and ingenuity of a contemporary composer who is not afraid of a catchy melody, making free use of sea shanties and nautical dance tunes to depict a sailor’s life at sea. Some critics have pointed out obvious musical parallels to the work of British composer Benjamin Britten, particularly his sea operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but Heggie’s score falls so comfortably on the ear that some of its more muscular passages almost could be lifted directly from one of John Williams’ better film scores.
Since Heggie’s opera takes place entirely at sea, this Moby-Dick is dominated by male voices, apart from a lone female singer, soprano Talise Trevigne, whose charming performance as the cabin boy Pip is a major highlight of the production.
Although the opera is performed in English, PBS wisely provides subtitles, which are especially helpful in non-solo passages. Production values, always a hallmark of performances from the SFO’s home at the historic War Memorial Opera House, are up to the company’s usual high standard.
Jay Hunter Morris is Captain Ahab in 'Moby-Dick,' Jake Heggie's opera derived from a classic novel by Herman Melville.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris is the obsessed Captain Ahab in a ‘Great Performances’ production of Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Moby-Dick.’

A ‘Hollow Crown’ brimming with wonders

RICH00690RichardII
Ben Whishaw
One of the big events of the fall TV season arrives tonight with the PBS premiere of The Hollow Crown, a Great Performances four-week miniseries featuring lavish adaptations of a quartet of Shakespeare’s most gripping history plays.
Cast with some of Great Britain’s finest classically trained actors, Crown chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of three English Kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V – and how their reigns helped shape British history.
Tonight’s premiere features Richard II, a lesser-known play here in the States, but absolutely gripping in this film directed by Rupert Goold. Ben Whishaw, who played gadget guru Q in the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, stars as the vain, capricious and self-centered monarch whose penchant for acting on spiteful whims is revealed almost immediately, as Richard is petitioned by a cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear), to settle a dispute with Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy from Fox’s The Following).
Ultimately, Richard renders a judgment that pleases no one, banishing both men from the kingdom, although he rewards Henry’s past loyalty by sending him away for “only” six years. That’s more than enough, however, to break the heart of Henry’s elderly father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart), who dies soon after his son departs. Wasting no time, Richard seizes the family’s property and possessions that are Henry’s birthright, then heads to Ireland to put down a rebel uprising.
In the king’s absence, a furious Henry defies his banishment, returning to reclaim his inheritance. With the heartfelt support of allies Northumberland (David Morrissey, The Walking Dead) and the Duke of York (David Suchet, Poirot), Henry readily takes Richard prisoner and lays claim to the throne as King Henry IV.
Whishaw, who won a BAFTA Award (the British Emmy) as best actor for his role, gives a fascinating performance as this rather effete and aloof monarch, a portrayal that is mildly off-putting in his early scenes, but builds in intensity and tragic stature as Richard’s destiny takes a series of appalling turns. At two and a half hours, Richard II is the longest of these films, yet it feels the shortest, because Goold keeps things moving at such a nice clip.
H4_080212_JB0020Prince Hal
Tom Hiddleston
On Sept. 27, Henry IV, Part I finds a much older Henry, now played by Jeremy Irons, beset by myriad troubles as his reign moves into its twilight years. What really has him most worried, however, is that Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers) is sowing his wild oats with a drunken old knight named Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale, who won the BAFTA as best supporting actor) at a tavern run by Mistress Quickly (Julie Walters) instead of dutifully preparing to assume the throne. In fact, Hal’s misbehavior is causing such a scandal that a challenger to the throne, Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), is having no trouble building a coalition of supporters.
With rebels threatening the succession, Hal ultimately returns to his father’s side, but not before one of the most unforgettable comic moments in the miniseries, as Hal makes fun of his father, giving Hiddleston an excuse to show off his absolutely pitch-perfect vocal impression of the great rumbling drawl Jeremy Irons seems to favor in most of his roles these days.
In Henry IV, Part II (Oct. 4), the king’s ministers step up their efforts to drive a wedge between Hal and Falstaff, and they get their wish after Hal overhears Falstaff belittling him and catches the boozy knight in a series of lies. After Henry IV dies, Falstaff is convinced his ship finally has come in, but he is in for a rude awakening as Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. In both films, director Richard Eyre brings to vivid life the uproarious medieval messiness of Falstaff’s world, although every now and then a scene gets so busy that we lose track of the story.
The miniseries concludes on Oct. 11 with director Thea Sharrock’s moving treatment of Henry V, which previously was adapted into critically acclaimed feature films starring Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Hiddleston continues in his regal role, looking every inch a king as Henry faces a series of challenges from the French monarch (Lambert Wilson). The first hour or so feels elegiac, including as it does the deaths of both Falstaff and his ne’er-do-well companion Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), but as events lead us inevitably to the high-stakes battle of Agincourt in France, the mood becomes more stirring. In the climactic moments, when Henry and his small, exhausted and bedraggled army must confront a well-rested French force five times its size, Hiddleston delivers his rallying speech to his troops thrillingly, while Sharrock frames the battle action in such a way as to make us believe there are far more soldiers on the battlefield than was actually the case.
Production values are absolutely top-notch, and the supporting cast also includes Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey), Maxine Peake and Tom Hughes of Silk, Clemence Poesy (Fleur from the Harry Potter films), Alun Armstrong (New Tricks), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Geoffrey Palmer (As Time Goes By), among many others. Needless to say, I highly recommend The Hollow Crown. Be careful, though, to check your local listings, because some PBS affiliates carry their own local programming on Friday nights and will schedule Crown in a different time period.
H4_230112_JB_0121Falstaff
Julie Walters and Simon Russell Beale