Henry 4

Bell Shakespeare
Directed by John Bell and Damien Ryan
The Canberra Theatre Centre. 27 Feb 2013

The opening production for Bell Shakespeare’s 2013 season and part of the Canberra Theatre Centre’s ‘Collected Works: Australia 2013’ line up for the Centenary celebrations, Co-Artistic Directors John Bell and Peter Evans have marked the event with a truly memorable offering.

Reworked from a script written by Bell some twenty years ago, this interpretation of the original epic play (written in two parts that often played on consecutive nights) has instead been condensed into two acts. Although still quite a lengthy production at around three hours, the energy and brilliance of Henry 4 sends time hurtling past while at once seemingly making it stand still.

The story, richly steeped in British medieval history, centres around the freshly crowned King Henry IV and his eldest son Hal, the Prince of Wales, who is a source of disappointment to his father due to his loutish behaviour and the unsavoury company he keeps.

King Henry has recently overthrown his cousin, King Richard II, with the help of the influential Percy family. But it is not long before trouble with the Percy’s begins to brew after Harry Percy (Hotspur) wins a fight for England against the Scottish, but is then screwed over by King Henry who demands his prisoners that are worth a good sum of ransom money.

Meanwhile, Hal kicks about aimlessly in the seedy underworld of bars and brothels with his mischievous friend Poins and his substitute father figure, the vulgar, opportunistic yet somewhat endearing Falstaff; Britain is on the verge of civil war and King Henry needs Hal to step up as heir to the throne.

The high-octane opening scene at first reveals a creative representation of the Union Jack which is promptly smashed to pieces, giving way to a rag tag bunch of hoods exploding on the stage mid-debauchery. Instantly you could tell this was going to be a cracking good show. 

Set in contemporary London, in an indistinguishable decade, there were modern pop references a-plenty. The live music, props and costuming were effective and often hysterically comical, perhaps making this the most accessible and enjoyable Bell Shakespeare creation in some time. It is clear that the directors hold the belief that Shakespeare’s work, although portraying a moment in history, is timeless. Refreshingly, the cast for the most part retained their Australian accents, a detail that greatly assisted with giving the story a sense of ownership and relevance.

The cast (and casting) was tight and absolutely impeccable, radiating a great sense of intimacy and camaraderie, as well as one hundred per cent commitment to the project; many switched roles multiple times throughout the performance, and those who did transitioned smoothly from often polarised characters and emotional states.

What is also noteworthy is the intricate attention to detail employed in every aspect of the production, making the show feel seamless and continually absorbing. The battle scenes were skillfully choreographed and executed thanks to the expertise of fight director, Scott Witt who convincingly orchestrated some visually magnificent conflict scenes.

Matthew Moore was outstanding as the cocky and duplicitous Hal, bringing a youthful sharpness to the role while steadfastly holding his own as a leading man against the force of nature that is John Bell (playing his frienemy, Halstaff). Likewise, David Whitney as King Henry IV exuded the authority and arrogance of the ailing monarch in spades, seeming almost impenetrable until he deftly etches the cracks in his façade during his dying moments.

Jason Klarwein in the feisty and obstinate role of Hotspur (and Pistol) is edgy and completely without reservation, giving way to impulse with confidence and amusing the audience to no end with his self righteous ravings.

However, it was Bell who gave most to his role, sashaying from scene to scene like a grand old master and quite possibly delivering the performance of a lifetime. It was he as Halstaff that offered the ultimate comic relief, while permeating this seemingly old fool with layers of vulnerability and warmth.

It would be futile to point out other notable cast members in Henry 4 as each was as brilliant as the next, working organically as a whole. The energy conducted by this dream team was palpable, and provided an incredibly exhilarating night at the theatre.

In Canberra, where leaders rise and fall with increasing fluidity, this gift by Australia’s beloved Bell Shakespeare for our capital’s 100th birthday is both thoughtful and apt, while still holding massive appeal for those who hold little affection for the work of England’s Bard.

Deborah Hawke