The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Pretenders To The Throne

Another review of a BBC Shakespeare from 2006. Warning – quite a lot of this is COMPLETE ARSE. Oh, what a know-all git I was! This review is basically a load of pompous crap, I must’ve been having a bad day or something, so apologies in advance.


Déjà vu. I've seen this one before. We did this play at my school for GCSE, so I'm pretty sure I've already done an essay about it. All I can remember is that I went to great lengths to analyse the memorable exchange, a classic piece of Shakespearean writing:

HOTSPUR: A plague upon it! I have forgot the map!

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

The point I made was that there has to come a point where you stop analysing. Is the author's intent with the above dialogue to illustrate Hotspur's hotheadedness and lack of forward planning, his reliance on instinct over rationality, and to then contrast it with Glendower's more level-headed, pragmatic and self-reliant attitude? Or is it just a rather crap bit of business because Shakespeare was stuck as to how to begin a scene about a funny mad Welshman? A scene which must have been a bugger to write, as it needs to introduce a character and get across exposition, but which has no plot beats in it at all, and really is just fifteen minutes of two people telling each other what they already know, singing for a bit then falling asleep. Or is it a deliberate moment of light relief to act as a contrast to the themes within the play, themes about loyalty, and royalty, and How To Win Friends And Influence People. And people trying to remember where they put their maps.

The thing is, the above paragraph almost certainly shows me putting more thought into those two lines that Shakespeare ever did. And that is an important thing to avoid. Because Shakespeare, as a writer, wrote stuff for audiences to understand fully, in one sitting, in a cold, noisy theatre with uncomfortable seats where people would throw cakes at the actors and grumble that they could have gone to see the bear-baiting next door.

Indeed, as a general principle, it is the whole idea of critical excavation that I have a problem with. Shakespeare did not bury hidden themes and subtexts within his plays; the themes and ironies are clearly signposted and Supposed To Be Noticed In One Sitting. I can understand the need for a little critical dusting, to get a clearer view through the muddling opacity of language shift, but digging beyond that is, I feel, counterproductive.

Because, after a while, the process of critical excavation stops telling you anything about the text but instead, as the critic starts to second-guess the author's subconscious intents and influences, they start to drift into cod-psychoanalysis and ultimately end up telling you more about their own problems than whatever they are analyzing. Like bad critics, they project their own obsessions, agendas and paranoias onto their subject matter.

That is the first danger. That looking too deeply is a slippery slope to madness. If you pay as much attention to the text as the author did in writing it, fair enough, there is insight to be gleaned. But once you step beyond that into the land of hidden meanings, symbolics and semiotic games, you are basically heading down the road to finding mathematical theorem in the lyrics of Kate Bush, clues to the death of Paul McCartney, and internet discussions about how Russell T Davies has clearly taken the inspiration for his scripts from the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who.

Which brings me to the second danger. Shakespeare didn't write plays to be criticised or to have essays written about them. He wrote them to sell tickets and his associated merchandise - Richard III humps, Shylock comedy noses and Macbeth rubber daggers (plus the overseas gameshow rights to the Merchant of Venice Lucky Box Game). The danger is when authors start writing things specifically to be critically dissected.

That is not writing. Good, clever writing is stuff which excites people, involves them, and gets an emotional response out of them, whether that be laughter, tears, fear or joy or the combination of all four that can be commonly found in most episodes of Rentaghost. Clever writing is not the accumulation of literary references, in-joking or playing meta-textual games. Clever writing is not a process of going “Do you see what I was doing there? Aaaah”.

And my point, which I am now finally getting at, is that Shakespeare did not write plays as an exercise in “Do you see what I was doing there? Aaaah”. So when teachers and critics start going “Do you see what Shakespeare was doing there? Aaaah” they should be lightly slapped.

I mean, Henry IV Part One has a recurring thematic device of people comparing themselves to lions, as a concept of bravery. But it's not exactly subtle, it's people saying “Ooh, I'm a bit like a lion”. Which is why, as a teenager, I found it so difficult to write essays about this sort of thing, because I couldn't understand why teachers wanted me to point out the bleedin' obvious.

And this wasn't because I was particularly clever. I was just horribly, inconsolably nerdy.

Anyway. Sometimes a crap line about having forgotten a map is just a crap line about having forgotten a map. Taking things at face value is an appropriate response, it is engaging with the material on the level that the author intended it to be engaged with at.

And that sentence ended with two prepositions which must be some sort of record for illiteracy.

But what is the play about, I hear you cry (actually it sounds more like the roll of tumbleweeds, but never mind). Is it all about the forgetting and remembering of maps? Or is there more to it than that?

Well, what sets it up above the Henry VIs and Richard III is the depth of the characterisation. What sets it up above King John and Richard II is that Shakespeare manages to construct a decent story out of historical events, with character development, strong plotting and a satisfying climax. It's another knockout work, basically, pretty much in the same league as Julius Caesar.

What it is about, though? Well, Henry IV has taken over the throne, having deposed Richard II. Henry IV thinks the best way to Win Friends And Influence People is to be aloof, distant, unassailable and to maintain the mystery of the monarchy.

Unfortunately this hasn't won him many friends or much influence. In fact, there's a mad Welshman called Owen Glendower who really doesn't like him. And a mad Scotsman called Douglas. And a perky young Englishman called Hotspur.

Hotspur is ideal King material. He's courageous determined, and played by the subtle and restrained actor Tim Piggott-Smith. He's not an ham, Hotspur. (This sort of pun doesn't come across well written down. Or, indeed, when spoken. Tottenham Hotpsur. What is wrong with you people?)

Compare and contrast, if you will, Hotspur with the prince-in-waiting, Hal. Hal does not seem particularly brave or determined. He lives a life of drunken debauchery. He pretends to be a 'chav'. He goes to see strippers. He even dresses up as a Nazi, just for a laugh.

Hal spends all his time hanging around with Falstaff, a fat, drunken, cowardly but utterly lovable rogue. He's like half a Holmesian Double-Act. And with Falstaff there is an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, he is a well-rounded, beautifully-drawn and extremely funny character, who makes some good, pragmatic points. On the other hand, he is an excuse for fat actors to have their noses and cheeks painted red and lots of comedy blustering.

Falstaff does some funny stuff. There's the business in the first half, where he undertakes a highway robbery, only to be robbed by Hal and his chum Poins (in disguise), and where he makes up increasingly unbelievable stories about having been attacked by two, no four, no seven, no eleven bandits. There's the battle in the second half where he decides cowardice is the better part of valour and lies down in a ditch pretending to be dead. And there’s his scam to keep the money he’s been given to hire some crack troops by hiring dole scum instead.

But sometimes I can't help feeling he is a bit too much. Too big, too cartoony, too blustery. Too red in the nose and the cheeks.

Why is Hal hanging around with him? It's all part of a cunning plan. Hal intends to make a dramatic transformation, because he knows that the public will love him more as a reformed waster than as somebody has been a goody-two-shoes. It's that whole Bible thing of the sinner repenteth scoring more brownie points with God than he who hath not sinneth.

This is how Hal intends to Win Friends And Influence People. And that's what the play is about, contrasting the approaches taken by Henry IV, his son, and Hotspur. Do we want our leaders to be unattainable men of state, or approachable men of the people? Do we want our rulers to be people who have lived purer-than-pure lives, or people who have got out there, and lived a real life, who have made mistakes and roistered and doistered and, dare I say it, joistered like the rest of us?

The only problem is that when we learn that Hal is merely pretending to be a bad young man in order to impress people all the more when he transforms his ways, Hal comes across as rather calculating and unlikeable. Particularly in his treatment of Falstaff, which becomes a relationship of cynical necessity rather than friendship. Even when Hal pretends to be a 'man of the people' he’s still using his status to humiliate those around him, and his teasing of Falstaff is not so much the ribbing of two equals as a posh young man picking on someone less well off.

Nevertheless there is a sort of genuine respect and friendship between them - a sort of Tintin and Captain Haddock vibe - but how long can it last? Is it strong enough to make it all the way through Henry IV Part Two? Only time, and Henry IV Part Two, will tell.

Anyway, the story is that the three men with grudges - Hotspur, Glendower and Douglas - form an alliance to overthrow Henry IV. Henry IV offers them a peaceful settlement, but they turn it down. A battle ensues. Being Welsh, Glendower fails to turn up. Douglas goes berserk. Hotspur faces Hal in a dramatic confrontation. Hal kills him and runs off to tell his dad, and then Falstaff climbs out of his ditch, pokes his sword into Hotspur's leg and tries to take the credit for killing him.

All lots of fun. Maybe not quite as compelling as Richard III, but the best Historical so far.

Not many Doctor Who stars in this one. Hotspur's missus was played my Michele Dotrice, who I always found incredibly annoying because of the way, in Some Mothers Do 'Ave ‘Em, she would always drop a semitone as she said the word 'Frank', so it became a sort of whining, long-suffering 'Fra-ank.'. Ooh, that incredibly annoyed me.

Next up: Much Ado About Nothing

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