The Hollow Crown - Henry IV Part 1
The high standard set by Rupert Goold and co in the first programme in this series, Richard II is effortlessly matched by the company put together by Sir Richard Eyre for its follow-up.
Simon Russell Beale has long been the best stage actor around but has made far less of an impact on TV and film than his unique talent deserves.
He shines in this classically-staged, cut down version of the second History Cycle play, joining a long line of fine actors who have relished the opportunity to play one of Shakespeare's great comic antiheroes, Sir John Falstaff.
This play might be named for the reigning King but Jeremy Irons gets a relatively limited opportunity in that part, doing perfectly well with his brief moments.
Although his time is yet to come, it is Tom Hiddleston playing young Prince Hal who stays much longer in the limelight, frequently in company with his bad companion Russell Beale's obese, cowardly knight.
Unlike the other seven plays in the cycle, much of Henry IV Part 1 has the characteristics of a comedy, as Falstaff lives his leisurely life, while his princely partner in crime (very literally on occasion) pokes fun at the portly vagabond much to Hal's amusement and ours.
The Boar's Head Inn in London's Eastcheap is the home to much bad behaviour as well as a couple of top actresses clearly enjoying themselves. Julie Walters plays the hostess Mistress Quickly while Maxine Peake is most effective in the role of the raunchy Doll Tearsheet.
Beyond the comic strain, this play also features political infighting at court and physical fighting on the battlefield. In both cases, the contrary miscreants are royal relatives from the North. They are the Earl of Northumberland and his feisty son Harry Percy, also known as valiant Hotspur. Pleasingly, the pair are portrayed by a talented, real-life father and son, Alun and Joe Armstrong, who are remarkably similar both vocally and facially.
After much hijinks, by the time that it actually matters, the wastrel Hal has become reconciled to his father and his obligations during a particularly moving scene that shows off both actors to good effect.
The running time of just under two hours builds to a really exhilarating battle scene that finally pits the two Harrys, Prince and Hotspur, against one another in a fight to the death, turned to his own advantage by the ever-present Sir John Falstaff.
Once again, the BBC has commissioned and delivered on an exhilarating production that will undoubtedly convert many unbelievers to the joys of Shakespeare. Those of them who live in London will have a rare choice of live productions to test out their new-found passion during a summer that has so far seen three RSC openings, two at the Globe and a pair at Hampstead.
However, their most likely port of call will be the National, where disciples will be able to see their new TV hero Simon Russell Beale performing for Nicholas Hytner in Timon of Athens.
The Hollow Crown comprises:
Reviewer: Philip Fisher