Bell really knows Bill. Yes, the company’s called Bell Shakespeare, but what’s in a name? It might proclaim the overwhelming direction of its programming, but it can’t communicate the depth of affinity it has with the bard. Or so I fancy, when I imagine the character of the man who wrote plays which have informed and infiltrated the English language more than the Bible. Anyone who’s seen a Bell production will know quality is to be expected, but with Henry 4, the company has exceeded itself.
If there was ever a production designed to cure theatre novices of their aversion (to Shakespeare in particular, probably developed at high school), it’s John Bell’s deft adaptation of ye olde Bill’s history plays, Henry IV, parts one and two. Stephen Curtis’ design is probably the first thing that opens one’s eyes a little wider. A shipping container serves as an entrance and exit, as well as emulating a bloke’s shed. There, on the door, hangs an assortment of swords, daggers and, amusingly, a chainsaw. This wit extends to costume, with Bell, as a kind of ocker Falstaff, looking like the homeless man you’ve tried to avoid on the bus. (You know you have.)
When one considers that Shakespeare never published any of his plays and that we’ve ever relied upon unauthorised versions transcribed posthumously (not by him, obviously), it seems fitting to transcend the falsely sacrosanct approach to his work and make it sensible for a contemporary audience. John Bell’s accomplishment in distilling and vivifying the text is extraordinary. Even for him. From the get go, it’s electric with with energy; the stage populated by sharply-drawn and defined characters, played by a fine ensemble of imaginatively cast actors.
The opening scene could be a Friday night at your local. Homeboys and bogans, out for a beer. But very much at the centre of this action and throughout this production is its co-director (with Damien Ryan) as Falstaff. There are, of course, many fascinating characters in this work but, despite surrounding himself with outstanding actors, Bell steals the show. In many ways, he’s turned the play into a more concentrated study of Falstaff.
Like many a political aspirant, it’s safe to say Henry has bent a few rules, kicked a few heads and stepped on a few toes as he climbed to the top. Oh, and deposed the odd king. David Whitney certainly makes him a desiccated, distant fellow: little wonder his son, Prince Hal (Matthew Moore), prefers other company. Like ineffectual thieves and whores. Singling out the drunken, dissembling Falstaff as a father figure is a mark of his desperation.
Hal, of course, gradually gather his resources and when his glorious moment finally comes, he makes his father look like a pussy. In this production, it’s made all the more striking by the fact that, up until that point, Moore conceals his black, treacherous heart, for the most part, under a cloak of easygoing camaraderie. Save for the odd outburst which serves as a clue as to what’s to come, he paints Hal as almost wishy-washy. In this way, Moore slyly captures an off-putting ambiguity: Hal is, by turns, noble and deceitful.
Jason Klarwein is Hotspur, fierce warrior and disenfranchised former ally of Henry. But, as in the ALP, he doesn’t feel he’s been commensurately rewarded for his victories on the king’s behalf. Klarwein exudes this stewing inner conflict. Both his torment and impetuousness are palpable.
Tony Llewellyn-Jones finds a good home for his distinctive style in Westmoreland, Henry’s chief of staff. Wendy Strehlow is hilariously shrew-like as Mistress Quickly, the head barmaid at the Boar’s Head. She has to put up with a lot and she, in return, is a lot to put up with. (The only quibble would be that her “diatribal” delivery risks sacrificing clarity, at times.) Matilda Ridgway is exceptional as Doll Tearsheet (you’ve got to love the names); a more pathetic practitioner of the oldest profession there could not be.
Kelly Ryall’s heavy-duty score (much of it rendered live by two of the actors) is also notable for its contribution to the feeling of grunge that permeates the setting and action. Afterward, you’ll want to shower.
But again, this is, above all Falstaff’s play. Bell’s. Literally, of course. But materially, as well. Bell really knows Bill.
The details: Henry 4 plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 26. Tickets on the venue website.