Henry 4 review
Bell Shakespeare Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
John Bell’s DNA is all over Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Henry 4. He co-directs with Damien Ryan, using the adaptation he did for the company in 1998 with a few small revisions, on top of which he turns in a marvellous performance as Falstaff.
Distilling Shakespeare’s two plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into one play, Bell removes a lot of the politics and sub-plots to focus on the triangular relationship between Henry IV and his dissipated son Prince Hal, and between Hal and his surrogate father Falstaff, the old reprobate who is leading him astray.
Arky Michael, Yalin Ozucelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Terry Bader, Wendy Strehlow. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
The contemporary production is staged on Stephen Curtis’ gritty, industrial set with a shipping container, jukebox and a wall of milk crates, which is partially destroyed in a riotous prelude to the play.
The colourful, streetwise vibe is reflected in the costumes (jeans, beanies and hoodies for the characters in the tavern scenes; suits for the court) along with other touches like tasers, prissy German tourists, a hapless football team, a bike courier and a mad Scotsman whose aggressive drum playing is reminiscent of Animal in The Muppets. Some of these feel like a bit of a cheap laugh but had the audience chortling delightedly.
The score meanwhile includes Queen’s We Are the Champions and London’s Calling by The Clash.
The production is robustly physical, snappily paced and very clear in its storytelling even if the musicality of the language suffers a little now and then. The comic scenes featuring Falstaff and his motley, lowlife crew are more successful than the serious scenes at court and on the battlefield, though David Whitney is in commanding form as the fiercely sharp-tempered Henry IV, who is all too aware of his fragile hold on the crown. His portrayal of the King’s descent into illness is also beautifully judged.
Bell’s Falstaff is a joy. Sporting a fat suit, ruddy cheeks and straggly, grey hair, and dressed as an aging bikie, he revels in the portly knight’s drunken vulgarity, masterfully delivering his slippery wit in a hilarious performance that also has its moments of poignancy.
Hal is not a particularly likeable character but Matthew Moore manages to make him relatively sympathetic. However, his delivery of the language is a little one-note, which works against Hal’s transformation to heroic prince.
Among a solid ensemble Sean O’Shea is extremely funny as Justice Shallow, playing him as a doddery harry high pants, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones is a wonderfully suave Westmoreland.
All in all, Henry 4 is a very entertaining version of Shakespeare’s history plays.
Ends May 26.
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 28.