HENRY 4, Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 20-May 26, 2013. Photos by Lisa Tomasetti: Arky Michael, Felix Jozeps, Yalin Ozecelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Terry Bader, Wendy Strehlow. Right: David Whitney and Matthew Moore.
Henry 4 combines Shakespeare's two Henrys into three hours of comedy and drama that - as so much of the playwright's work does - tells us as much about ourselves as it might of Elizabethan times. This Henry is all about people who are not what they seem, or not what they should be. It's also about what we hope or dream we are - the illusions and delusions of every day. It was poignant therefore to catch up with the production on the same day as the new Dutch king's coronation.
The TV news vox pops from the streets of Amsterdam brought us a woman clad head to foot in the House of Orange's signature shade. She said she really liked the new king's consort (an Argentinian investment banker) because "she looks like a queen". Shakespeare would have loved that thought, even as he would have chortled at the transformation of "Prince Pils" - the pleasure-loving crown prince - into the very model of dutiful and serious monarch, Willem-Alexander.
Predating that regal metamorphosis by four centuries, almost at the end of the play the newly-crowned Henry 5 says to Falstaff, his one-time father figure and confidant, "Presume not that I am the thing I was," thus coldly denying the old man before going on his way. For his part, however, the foolishly capering old blowhard quickly reassures his followers that all is well, "Hal" will summon him later - in private - and they will resume their places at the new king's side and their customary carousing will carry on as before.
The crown has changed Hal, however, or at least, he wants it to have changed him. But how often does that happen? The idea that life-threatening experiences actually are life-changing is a neat cliche - more often than not we wake up in the morning and are the same person we were the night before. So it is with Hal/Henry (Matthew Moore): he is still the callow, hedonistic boy-man he always was, the only difference is that he now wears a crown. And history shows that's the most dangerous difference of all.
Bell Shakespeare Company's 2013 production has been on tour - Canberra, Melbourne and Perth before coming into Sydney - since February and the company is solid and finely tuned. Sharing direction of the play with Sport For Jove's brilliant Damien Ryan may have something to do with John Bell's lightness and ingenuity as Falstaff. He's as free as a bird and wonderful to watch. His Falstaff is a tubby, grubby, sack-quaffing old roue and Bell is initially unrecognisable and ultimately tremendous. He capers and drawls and dribbles as the ma-ate of the motley crew that traipses in his wake. Yet as time goes on his humanity is revealed - his paternal feelings for Hal and his final realisation of his (lowly) place at court - and it's touching and tragic; possibly one of his best performances in twenty-some years.
The clarity and drama of the play is reflected in the contemporary/period setting. The audience leaves the theatre to the snarling punk of The Clash and London's Burning. Earlier, as urban riot and mayhem stands in for the factional battles between dukes and earls, Queen's We Are The Champions sounds both louche and ironic. And both from 1977 - the first glimmer of what would become known as Cool Britannia but which is no more. The set, by Stephen Curtis and lit by Matt Scott suggests that era and also the more recent post-GFC social unrest.
A towering back wall of stacked red, white and blue plastic milk crates is instantly fragile and breakable yet also echoes their domestic sturdiness and familiarity: who doesn't have one full of household or DIY nicknacks? A rusting shipping container adds to the urban and industrial feel and is in contrast to the plastic patio furniture, old jukebox, kettle bbq and the king's "throne" - a black leather armchair. Changes of time and place are washes of light and from the opening moments - jangling guitar and drums a la Sex Pistols played on stage by two actors - the energy and dynamism are thrilling. Costumes are equally good at signifying who's who. The king and his lords wear smart City suits; the rebels have blue collar management reflective coats, the soldiers sport Paul Smith-style camo, while Prince Hal and his mates are all bovver boots, hoodies, ripped jeans and plaid shirts.
These times are out of joint, even if the warring parties are disinclined or unable to put their fingers on exactly why. This uncertainty is reflected in the relationship between the king and his son; his son and his old mentor and the shifting of the social landscape. Mistress Quickly (Wendy Strehlow) is one of the late unlamented Baroness Thatcher's creations - a fast-talking, quick-witted, ill-educated publican who'll climb the social ladder if it kills her. Together with young moll Doll Tearsheet (Matilda Ridgeway) the women represent the good, the bad and the ugly of the female experience - including how to rise above it.
A mob of Bell veterans are on hand: Tony Llewellyn Jones is a splendidly urbane Westmoreland to David Whitney's troubled and doomed king and Sean O'Shea makes a delightfully daffy country squire. Arky Michael, too is comical, subtle and great value in several roles. The rest of the company is well up to their standard: Felix Jozeps, Yalin Ozecelik and Terry Bader round out the various members of the court and other gangs with clear and nuanced characterisations; Kason Klarwein, Nathan Lovejoy and Ben Wood bring visual as well as physical interest and their comedy leavens the dramatic push of the play.
All in all Henry 4 is absorbing, thrilling and yet another reminder of why coming back to Shakespeare time and again is one of the best ways of being provoked and entertained and ultimately satisfied with your evening or afternoon out. Recommended.