The thing about Shakespeare, as actor John Finch once said, is that it's all beautiful, not just the Hamlets and Lears.
"Henry IV, Part 2" will do for an example. Many of us were exposed to Part 1 in college, and bits of it were lifted by Laurence Olivier for his film version of "Henry V," but tonight's BBC production (8 to 11 on Channel 26) in the Shakespeare cycle will be new to a large part of the American audience.
It takes a bit of patience. The first few scenes consist of those utterly confounding exchanges between the earls of this and that -- skewered brilliantly by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in "Beyond the Fringe" -- deep in pre-tudor politics. Even those who have seen Part 1 will be scratching their heads to remember who was plotting what with whom.
But then Anthony Quayle comes on as Falstaff, eyes squirrel-bright, vitality unchecked by age, and the wonderful scene with Mistress Quickly and the gorgeously sumptuous Cockney Doll Tearsheet brings the play to life.
In the very next scene we get Finch at last, as the dying, disintegrating Henry IV. He takes hold of the play with complete authority and never lets it go.
In his final scenes, his face blistered with some awful pox, his gloved hands clawing at each other, his hair wild as a madman's, he pulls this work far above its familiar title of "chronicle play," berating his son, "O foolish youth, thou seeks the greatness that will overwhelm thee," not realizing that the boy is about to transform himself into the mighty Henry V.
The play ends with one of the most satisfying payoff scenes in literature: the former wild Prince Hal testing and then praising his aged mentor for being hard on him, and finally the famous disavowing of Falstaff, the companion of his revels.
English audiences, which saw this play last year, raved about Finch's performances in the series. Now we know why.