The other Henry IV

28th February 2019

Tomorrow night, Friday 1 March, BFI Southbank, under the title ‘European Connections’, begins a rich season of British television productions of classic European plays. A time there was when both the BBC and ITV produced exceptional presentations of drama from the theatrical repertoires of France, Germany, Italy and beyond – and there are several great examples on offer. Henry IV tomorrow reminds us that Luigi Pirandello wrote a play with the same title as the far more familiar pair from the pen of William Shakespeare, and the signs are that this exceptionally rare screening starring Paul Scofield (above) will be a revelation. (Frustratingly I can’t get to the BFI for the showing, but I’m hoping to find another way to watch this – if anyone goes, could they record a thought or two below?)

Back in 1959 the critic Eric Crozier, previewing the production in Radio Times, introduced readers to the plot:

A wealthy young Italian of good family, given to introspection but also verv fond of amateur theatricals and the pleasures of society, is invited to take part with some friends in an historical pageant. The woman he loves, Donna Matilda, a vain, light-hearted, shallow young creature, has already chosen her character: she will be dressed as her eleventh-century namesake, Matilda of Tuscany. He, therefore, decides to ride beside her as Henry the Fourth, the German Emperor who quarrelled with the Pope and suffered excommunication until Matilda intervened on his behalf. With typical enthusiasm, he begins studying every detail of the German Emperor’s life and relationships with other people of the period. When the day of the pageant arrives he is completely soaked in the historical background. During the pageant there is an accident: his horse suddenly rears and throws him: he receives a blow on the head as he falls, and his brain is damaged in such a way that he loses his own personality and believes himself to be the character he was impersonating. 

Pirandello’s play was premiered in Milan in February 1922 and is much concerned, as is so much of the author’s work, with the levels of fantasy and reality. The central role is regarded as a juicy part for

Radio Times also offered an insight into how producer John Harrison was able to persuade Scofield to play the role for television, when before this his only other appearance on the small screen was in an excerpt from Expresso Bongo when that was shown as an outside broadcast:

[Scofield’s] association with the producer, John Harrison, in fact goes back a long way, to just after the war when they first met as actors in Birmingham Repertory. Scofield was Harrison’s best man at his wedding, and each is godfather to the other’s child. They were both members of Sir Barry Jackson’s Stratford Festivals in 1946 and 1947, and in 1950 Harrison produced Scofield in two special Sunday night performances of Pericles.

Remarkably, there have been three other productions of Henry IV for British television. Utilising innovative studio techniques, producer Dallas Bower mounted a live production at the end of March 1938, with Ernest Milton playing the lead and Valerie Hobson in the cast. Royston Morley staged it for the camerasd in June 1947 with Ralph Michael, and with another emerging star a long way down the cast list, Kenneth More. And Alan Badel took the role on BBC2 in 1967, with Michael Hayes directing.

Back in 1959, the anonymous critic for The Times was a touch underwhelmed by the production:

The main complaint against Mr John Harrison’s production is that it intensifies the untheatrically austere character of the play. The court scenes were played in a style of jittery restraint: palpably the visitors to the throne room were merely masquerading as eleventh-century courtiers and in no danger of being caught up in the phantasy.

Writing in The Listener, however, Irving Wardle had nothing but praise for Paul Scofield’s performance:

This was superb casting. Mr Scofield is the only actor of the post-war generation to have set his image on the part of Hamlet [in a 1956 staging by Peter Brook], and the style of that performance exactly meets the demands of Pirandello’s distracted hero. It is a curiously remote style that electrifies cast and audience alike by intermittently descending upon the scene like some terrible bird of prey. Its essential and rare quality is that of giving the intellect a passionate voice.

Eric Crozier’s preview back in 1959 ends with a line that applies just as much to tomorrow night’s showing at BFI Southbank:

No one interested in fine drama and fine acting should miss it.

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