The Weekend's Viewing: The Hollow Crown: Henry V, Sat, BBC2
Girl Power: Going for Gold, Sun, BBC3
Here's an odd test for Thea Sharrock, directing the last of the BBC's excellent history play series The Hollow Crown.
Until now the enterprise (indeed any filmed Shakespeare) has been quietly haunted by an unseen character: one who rather pointedly addresses the difference between word and thing, and apologises for an insufficiency that film isn't actually subject to. "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them," invites the Chorus at the beginning of Henry V, an invitation that is superfluous when you can provide real horses with real clanking horsemen on their back. So, is there any place for the Chorus at the beginning of a filmed version of the play, which will be unconfined by the wooden O? Then again how brave would you have to be to cut some of the most famous lines out of the play altogether?
Braver than Sharrock, obviously, though what followed suggested that she doesn't lack the will for editorial surgery, with great chunks of Shakespeare's text disappearing entirely in the interests of cinematic fluidity. But she kept the prologue, running it over a premonition of Henry's early death as if to distract you from its redundancy: CGI took the place of all that supposing the Chorus invites us to do and left John Hurt with just the sonorous poetry, and the proto-cinematic compressions of narrative that can cut in an instant from failed negotiation to the opening volley of a seige: "The offer likes not: and the nimble gunner/ With linstock now the devilish cannon touches."
It's a little unfortunate that Henry V is the weakest of the four plays, crowning what has been a wonderfully stirring enterprise with a less satisfactory conclusion. The excisions here (understandably perhaps) nibbled away at the statecraft and policy in favour of battlefield action and the big set-piece declamations. And even there an anxiety not to follow the rut of previous versions had weakened the effect a little. Henry's "once more unto the breach" speech was given as a half-time team huddle rather than public address and his pre-Agincourt speech was a top-brass-only affair, certainly sanctioned by the text but still not entirely satisfactory with lines that are literally rabble-rousing.
Sharrock was on surer ground with the other ranks, including a heartbreaking farewell from Bardolph and Nym in London (the latter's self-conscious "adieu" particularly wrenching), a little touch of Harry in the night and the testing ruthlessness of Henry's execution of Bardolph, underlined here with a short flashback to their carousing days. And if Agincourt itself occasionally looked a little short of personnel, she'd got the smirching dirt of war, the way the deed itself leaves every bright badge of valour stained with mud or blood. It may not have been the finest of the films, but it didn't let the others down.
Girl Power: Going for Gold was about women worrying about their weights, a profile of three of the female contenders for the British weightlifting team. Paradoxically, for most of them, training involves learning how to lift ever heavier weights above their head while striving to drop kilos off their own personal weight, since (as with boxers) that's how the classes are divided. Not Hannah, though, a mere slip of a thing who had been instructed to go out and eat cup cakes for her country, in order to bump up her strength.
The film, like many recent Olympic documentaries, was another lesson in the exigency and cruelty of high-level sport, with the two most dedicated and disciplined women finally failing to make the cut, while Zoe – who'd already had her Olympic funding stopped once for lack of commitment – made it through to the team as the youngest woman ever to do so. She'd been just 60 grams under the qualifying weight at one competition, after a moment of weakness with a Subway roll. Perhaps proximity has sharpened her appetite for a medal.
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