Interviews: 'The Hollow Crown'

The directors of BBC2’s upcoming cycle of Shakespeare plays reveal how they rewrote the Histories

Rupert Goold (‘Richard II’)

Ben Whishaw as Richard II Ben Whishaw as Richard II

‘Theatre is fundamentally a medium about argument, whereas film is a medium about character. Behind all the pageantry, “Richard II” is perhaps the most character-driven of Shakespeare’s plays. In terms of story, not a huge amount happens compared to, say, “Henry V” or “Macbeth”. What is happening is the character evolution.

‘There are lots of takes one can make about Richard’s character to do with his self-identity, his sexuality, his ego. The thing that is extraordinary about Shakespeare is he celebrates contradiction in character. Richard [played by Ben Whishaw] is so multi-faceted. It's was hard not to think about Brown and Blair: you have a naturally charismatic, evangelical figure and a different kind of energy in the other. What is very interesting in the piece is that [a] nemesis makes the individual stronger. If you’re Federer you need a Nadal, and I think that is true of Bolingbroke and Richard.

‘In the stage production I’d been thinking about doing, I'd wanted to base it on Michael Jackson; the parallels were quite interesting [in the film, the king is a fragile, asexual creation with a pet monkey]. The monkey is a tribute! We were also trying to draw influences from non-Shakespeare films to try and make it more cinematic. I was very influenced by “The Thin Red Line”, which is ostensibly a war film but is in fact more of a philosophical enquiry and a mystic exploration. This is ostensibly a political thriller but it has a poetic sensibility – that’s why we’ve got lots of dreamy shots of nature.’ 

Richard Eyre (‘Henry IV Parts 1&2’)

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

‘Shakespeare’s writing is very filmic. Cutting from the the palace throne room to an Eastcheap tavern was very daring – nobody did that sort of thing back then, so I wanted to make as much of that as possible, without following his scheme entirely because I could cut away without having to worry about scene changes or costume changes. It took some fairly stringent editing, but I’ve always thought of Parts One and Two as the same story, so we shot them out of sequence. That allowed Jeremy [Irons as Henry IV] and Tom [Hiddleston as Prince Hal] to have the arc of their relationship in mind throughout – you could never get such a cast of this detail and intensity in the theatre.

‘The schedule was tight, so we had to plan everything in fantastic detail. The only thing that really went wrong was when it snowed for the Battle of Shrewsbury [which took place in 1403], but I was actually delighted. The grass of the English landscape tends to subvert the violence of battle, so the snow turned the setting into this monochromatic world. That stylisation was important throughout: the tavern scenes feel warm and humane, while the palace scenes are essentially men in pre-Tudor suits.

'But I never wanted to modernise anything: I don’t think those short dramas based on Shakespeare plays [‘Shakespeare ReTold’] made any sense at all, so I hope the BBC will make more of the plays themselves in future. My Shakespeare education was from television in the early ’60s – this spellbinding production of “As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave first piqued my interest in theatre – so I hope these might make a similar impression.'

Thea Sharrock (‘Henry V’)

Tom Hiddleston [with Jeremy Irons] as the future Henry V Tom Hiddleston [with Jeremy Irons] as the future Henry V

‘I loved learning a whole new set of rules and skills. It’s a whole different language to theatre and you have to learn very quickly. Shakespeare is not written for screen and making that leap is challenging. Tom [Hiddleston] and I spent a lot of time talking about who Henry was. And we got to a point that, when he did “Once more into the breach…”, he was saying it as our character of Henry as opposed to worrying about the history of the lines. That’s almost the thing that I’m most proud of, that we made those big moments our own.

‘I didn’t want to go for the huge, rhetorical thing. I wanted people to feel a real relationship between him and the people he’s talking to. We decided to do it to quite a small, intimate group, almost as if it’s happened by mistake. I wanted him to look into these young men’s eyes. Tom said, “I don’t want to do it sitting on a horse. I want to grab them by the collar.”

'The first question the producers asked was whether I’d want to modernise it. And I’ve never understood why one would want to do that, particularly on film. You start telling a whole different story. Then again, while I wanted it to be set in the period, I wanted it to have some kind of modern feel. Things like Tom’s jackets. And I didn’t want him to have a bowl haircut, I wanted him to have a look that wasn’t just accessible, but attractive. He was in “Avengers Assemble”, for goodness sake! He’s an amazing, beautiful-looking man. It seems crazy to put him in a pair of tights!’

Interviews: Phil Harrison and Gabriel Tate

‘Richard II’, Saturday June 30, 9pm, BBC2; ‘Henry IV Parts 1&2, Saturday July 7 & 14, 9pm, BBC2; ‘Henry V’, Saturday July 21, BBC2.