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Theatre Review: Henry 4

Thursday 23 May 2013

Theatre Review: Henry 4

John Bell merges Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into a 3-and-a-half hour play that draws the audience into punk-time London, mixed with a touch of the more recent London riots. The stage setting is a mismatch of shabby furniture, including an old car seat, a wall of milk crates assembled into the Union Jack, a traditional-style jukebox and a drum kit, which gets used to great effect. Stephen Curtis’ design is spot on, and leaves the audience feeling like they’re a part of the action. The shipping crate provides an interesting way to enter/exit the stage, and the ladder and pole provide height.

The production reveals a city in a state of anarchy. It presents a unique perspective on the current civil unrest in England, as well as a historical one. Henry IV is troubled by civil war, issues of state, and his son Hotspur (Jason Klarwein) is going battle mad, while Prince Hal just wants to party. And party he does in the first half of the production.

Co-directed by Bell and Damien Ryan, Henry 4 is more successful in the first half; the second half seems to drag on just a little with the comic soccer scene, which takes away from the drama of dying Henry. Even though this scene is amusing, we’re left wanting to get back to the guts of the story. 

There’s a whole lot going on in Henry 4, with humorous, camp German tourists (Nathan Lovejoy and Sean O’Shea), kilts, war scenes, picnics and a whole lot of rowdy bar scenes. Oh, and there’s also a bike courier who has accidentally stumbled across the play, who gets a lot of laughs from the audience. It’s these contemporary twists on Shakespeare’s work that transforms it from a text most have studied at some point in their lives, into an enjoyable and powerful work of theatre.

David Whitney is a tormented King who is rebelled against by his loyal followers, and Matthew Moore performs the young Hal perfectly as a young brattish hooligan, playing pranks on his friends and turning his nose up at his father. His transformation towards the end is quick, as he becomes the new King.

But the scene-stealer is Bell as the biker-dressed, crotch-grabbing, greedy, womaniser Falstaff. His nuanced depiction, wittily expressed lines, and alcoholic staggering around on stage makes the production an enjoyable journey to follow. He’s such an unlikeable character, that if you saw him on the bus, you couldn’t bear to sit next to him. Especially not with his slurred speech and unkempt appearance. While Bell seems to be in his prime, it’s hard to imagine Falstaff in any other way after seeing Bell’s version of him. You can see that he relishes the role that provides some of Shakespeare’s best insults.

The production focuses on Hal’s relationships with his two fathers, his real one, the King, and his surrogate one, the deceitful Falstaff. It isn’t until the last half that Hal, as the new King rejects the charismatic, yet flawed Falstaff. By this point, Hal is no longer the mischievous, party boy.

Kelly Ryall’s score (mostly performed live on the drums by the actors) furthers the grungy, modern vibe, and the chorus of “Jerusalem” was particularly fitting.

This is the perfect starting point for a Shakespeare tragedy novice; it’s an easily digested version with a fun set. It’s touching, funny, provoking and powerful, and Bell’s portrayal of Falstaff is not to be missed.

- Lena Peacock