Wednesday night’s fervent reception for the opening of Henry 4 at the Canberra Playhouse was proof that Canberrans are well and truly infatuated with Bell Shakespeare. Electing to open the season of this latest production to coincide with Canberra’s 100 year anniversary celebrations, John Bell knew that he would not disappoint an appreciative crowd of families, friends and Shakespeare connoisseurs. Enraptured theatre goers turned out in droves to be dazzled by this punk, street smart, Eighties-inspired adaptation of Shakespeare’s two part epic.
Playing out the entire action in front of a milk crate stack Union Jack, the scene set for Henry 4 seems a wasteland, strewn with rubbish and flanked by an industrial sized shipping container. Enter the larrikin prince. Together with his group of vagabonds, Prince Hal, carelessly dressed in a chequered shirt and kicks, spends the better part of Part One cavorting in the pub trying desperately to evade his father’s cronies. Egged on by his mischievous ensemble, rarely does Harry, or any other member of the cast for that matter, appear without a stubby in hand and stagger in his walk.
The first act depicts Harry and Falstaff as being almost one and the same, albeit Falstaff being much older, uglier and fatter. Bell slips perfectly into the role of the ageing, obese Falstaff whose womanising ways and rambunctious nature lead Harry astray and ultimately threaten his ability to be a respectable monarch of the kingdom. Fortunately for Harry, he is given the opportunity to earn his mettle against the marauding Scots in the Battle of Shrewsbury; a classily choreographed fight scene in which he kills the opposing Hotspur and wins the battle, believing that this will restore his father’s favour.
While Harry heads off to deliver the tidings to his father, the devious Sir John Falstaff revives himself from his self-imposed slaughter and immediately proceeds to ravage the pockets of the deceased. In doing so, he takes credit for slaying Hotspur, which draws the ire of Harry while earning the praise of his father, King Henry IV. As the curtain falls on Part One, the stage is set for a simultaneously more humorous yet tense second half which escalates to the ultimate showdown between Harry and Falstaff. Falstaff is joined by yet more eccentric characters, such as the constantly discharging Pistol and the wonderfully versatile Doll. Surrounded by all manner of caricatures, Bell’s gift as an actor is unmistakably apparent as he interacts with wit and candour with the drunken shenanigans at play.
There’s a reason the name Bell Shakespeare has become synonymous with quality theatre. John Bell’s fresh, irreverent, modern day translations of classic drama transform Shakespeare’s theatre into thoroughly enjoyable productions that are accessible for all audiences. Only a mind as brilliant as Bell’s would dare intersperse Elizabethan theatre with rock riffs, drum solos and an old English ballad, yet manage to pull it off with so much flair. In Henry 4 he again manufactures a successful formula of ye olde English language in a contemporary setting. Yet for all the theatrics and expressiveness of the drama it is almost as if the language was also modern because the suggestiveness of the body language is so easy to interpret.
John Bell has delivered again in an inspiring production that will have you chortling away at the antics of Falstaff and his geriatric tribe with such bemusement that you won’t even notice the three hours pass by. Bell has selected the finest collection of Shakespeare thespians in Australia and ensures that each actor infuses his or her character with a unique sense of charm. Together the ensemble brings to the stage a quintessentially Australian interpretation of the travesties of power, responsibility and coercion. The result is an industrial strength rampage of a monarch’s path to redemption and the mayhem that takes place along the way. Once again, although no one needed further convincing in any case, Bell Shakespeare has sealed its place as one of the country’s preeminent playhouses by producing another fantastic, absorbing and utterly original piece.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5
Bell Shakespeare presents
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by John Bell
Director: John Bell with Damien Ryan
Designer: Stephen Curtis
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer: Kelly Ryall
Fight Director Scott Witt
Text Captain: Tony Llewellyn-Jones
Cast: Terry Bader, John Bell, Felix Jozeps, Jason Klarwein, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Nathan Lovejoy, Arky Michael, Matthew Moore, Sean O'Shea, Yalin Ozucelik, Matilda Ridgway, Wendy Strehlow, David Whitney and Ben Wood
Running time: 3 hours and 10 minutes including interval
Canberra Theatre Centre: 23 February – 9 March
Arts Centre Melbourne: 14 – 30 March
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia: 5 – 13 April
Sydney Opera House: 19 April – 26 May