|Photo by Lisa Tomasetti|
Bell Shakespeare presents HENRY 4 adapted by John Bell from William Shakespeare's KING HENRY IV: PART ONE and KING HENRY IV; PART TWO, at the Drama Theatre, in the Sydney Opera House.
John Bell has adapted the two History plays, HENRY IV Parts One (1596-97) and Two (1597-98) into a three-hour ten-minute journey. These two plays were written after HENRY VI, Parts One ((1590-91), Two (1590-91) and Three (1590-91); RICHARD III (1592); RICHARD II (1595-96) but, before Henry V (1599). All part of the chronicles dealing with The War of the Roses. The two parts of HENRY IV is a single drama over ten acts. Some regard HENRY IV, Part One as the greatest of these history plays - Henry IV, Part Two is not often done without the first. In true history terms, then, Bolingbroke who deposed Richard II in civil war is now Henry IV, and Prince Hal, the son, is to become Henry V. The complexity of plot, permitted by the length of the complete work over those ten acts, along with the richness of the text, allows for any one of three men to be regarded as the central character. If one sees Henry IV as a continuation of the story of Bolingbroke in RICHARD II one may see him as the protagonist, while, on the other hand, if we conceive it as background and preface to HENRY V, Prince Hal is central. But, if one reads or watches the plays, simply, the chances are that the comic element will overbalance the historical and so Sir John Falstaff may become the focus of your journey. Falstaff is so captivating a creation he may, indeed, become the most important. Queen Elizabeth I thought so and commanded Shakespeare write another play with Falstaff in it: hence, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (1597). (If the chance in casting has been strong, the role of Hotspur can be seen as a fourth pillar to the central concerns of the play - certainly, when I try to recall the Jack O'Brien, 2003-04, production of these two plays at the Lincoln Center, it is Ethan Hawke's Hotspur that springs to mind, with Kevin Kline's Falstaff registering behind it, and I have no memory at all of the actor who played Prince Hal or Henry IV.)
In this production which has been prepared, and edited by Mr Bell, it is Falstaff that dominates the play. And, not only has Mr Bell adapted the script, he is, for the first time, playing 'the fat knight', and, also, is the Director, assisted by Damien Ryan. We are told that this Falstaffian realisation of the two plays has been a long dreamed of ambition of Mr Bell's. The realisation of this dream should not only be a deserved pleasure (exhausting, too, I don't wonder!) for Mr Bell to experience, but, is, one that should not be missed by any regular theatre goer, for the pleasure he gives us, is mutual. In recent months we have seen some great acting, role models of skill, that all should have seen, should see: Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines in DRIVING MISS DAISY and now Mr Bell, as John Falstaff.
Played in modern dress, Mr Bell has, in the Olivier tradition, completely created with costume, make-up and wig, a physical transformation, that is a marvel of artistic wizardry -'black' magic - so rarely attempted on our 'modern' stages. This 'look' is then enhanced with a consistency of physical observation and gesture that is flawless in its execution. Whether, standing, walking, sitting, dancing, mock 'fighting', meditating - in the centre of the stage action or peripherally, as he exits in the darkening scene changes, all of it is so replete in its craftsmanship, that Falstaff becomes a real human force to be engaged with. There is no doubt. The Shakespearean scholar, Harold Bloom, is fulsome of this creation of humanity by Shakespeare, in his book THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN. There is no doubt as to the completeness of the character on the page, he claims. And it is magnificently proved to be so, with this possession of Falstaff by Mr Bell, and Mr Bell by Falstaff. Combine the aforesaid with Mr Bell's supremely studied insight to the language of his dearly beloved poet/playwright, Shakespeare; the dexterity of the vocal instrument in its clarity of communicating every word, phrase, sentence, speech, scene and act to giving that insight to telling story commitment, at a crispness of a delicious speed - one must attend to Mr Bell/Falstaff - and, topped with the relish of a lover of what he is doing and giving, and you have a 'masterpiece' of acting.
Why this theatre is not full to capacity, overflowing, with the lovers of great performance or art - at my performance, maybe, just under half full - is a scandal and an indictment of the appreciation of the arts and the artists of this country. This is a performance to celebrate.
I do have reservations around the work of Matthew Moore as Prince Hal, which could undermine the production for some, considering the importance of the role in the structure of the piece. And, it is not just that Mr Moore does not seem to have, at this time, the charismatic powers that Hal must have, that of a 'sun-king' - think forward to Henry V - but that Mr Moore does not have the usage of the language at the detailed level of necessary verbal/thought construction to reveal the detail of human character- hypocrisies, frailties, Machiavellian manoeuvres and sophisticated philosophy that is Shakespeare's genius. Mr Moore's words seem to be an expression, mostly, of a generalised emotional communication, but not of rational explanation or argument. Words are not possessed with their power of meaning, either literally, sometimes, or more especially, metaphorically. Language, words are often thrown away as if they had no import to the character Shakespeare has written. It was a little staggering to hear, or, not hear, as the case might be. Occasionally, Mr Moore's usage sparks, but it never catches into flames. It is boyishly, emotionally charming at its best. Unfortunately, not enough to demand the focus that Prince Hal must have to reveal this play's greatness.
This is, otherwise, the most secure company of actors that I have observed in a Bell Shakespeare production for some time. David Whitney, in his character's limited opportunities glows/glowers with the contrarian presence and will of Henry IV. Jason Klarwein is striking as Hotspur, and, embraces the contrast, he has as an actor with appetite, in creating low-life Pistol, latterly. Wendy Strehlow as Mistress Quickly, seizes her 'turn' in the Inn at Cheapside, with relish and accuracy - sloughing off our image of her usual role playing, which she has been marking out as her territory of casting, as the pained 'wife' in the modern contemporary work she has been inhabiting. Here, Ms Strehlow says,"Watch what I can do and take note." It is marvellous work.
Terry Bader (wonderful to see him on stage), Nathan Lovejoy, Yalin Ozucelik, Sean O'Shea (especially, his outrageous daring character inhabitation of Justice Shallow), Arky Michael ( an amusing Silence, similarly daring, if not a choice familiar to us who have watched his recent work, MISSING THE BUS TO DAVID JONES), Felix Jozeps, Tony Llewellyn-Jones (a stalwart of clear security in all he does - modest and generous in serving and supporting the play, as usual), Matilda Ridgeway and Ben Wood, all give generous and supporting lives to their characters and story telling responsibilities. I felt safe in their hands and enjoyed myself - not much distraction of concern (did having a cast of 14 actors, a large company in Australian (Sydney) terms, help to maximise the clarity and joy of this production, I wonder?)
The Bell shift into a contemporary looking world, in the design (Stephen Curtis), did not seem to put too many obstacles to the flow of the Shakespearean world of the text. It had a logical intellectual parallel and the ownership by the actors, the 'true believers' of these anachronistic visualisations. The Cheapside Inn, been more successfully achieved, in look and actor ownership, than the apartments of the Royal world - that lacked detailed wealth and power strengths. This was true of costume as well. The attention, imagination, or budget, did not seem to be as interested in convincing us of the Royal, as they were in the lower depths, which was amusing and constructively telling. It was beautifully lit by Matt Scott, and musically, composed by the inventive, and the more than reliable, Kelly Ryall - even the use of JERUSALEM as an anthem, albeit in Australian accents, did not knock me, jar me, from my ability to stay within the artistic conceits of the modern transposition, and wish otherwise.
The direction of the play, jointly, by Mr Bell and Mr Ryan allowed this version of the play to travel and reveal itself without histrionics or extraneous flourishes - an absence of blood, as a prop, amazing. All the transpositions from scene to scene had a story to tell, either in narrative of character or in mood creating shifts. This production in the second half lifted me into an appreciation of the 'majesty' of Shakespeare and his writing. This production lifted one, despite the everyday look, into another sphere, one of an elevated human scale, one that helped me to remember the power of theatre as a blessed extension of my day to day existence, one, which made me pleased to be a conscious and evolving animal.
There was a young American tourist/student with his girlfriend sitting behind me. I overheard him whinging, (this is paraphrase),
"When I go to see my Classics, my Shakespeare, I like the full shebang of period clothing. Like, I can see the real world around me everyday and it costs me nothing. I come to the theatre for an entrance, like, into another world, one that is extraordinary. I want, like, cloaks, crowns and palaces. It's why I love going to Broadway. I always kind of feel cheated, when it is the world I know. Like!"I wonder if he has a point. If one were to take into account the wonderful success with the 'young' of box office bonanzas such as the heavily designed Space Epics: STAR WARS; STAR TREK, or the LORD OF THE RINGS film series or the television phenomena of A GAME OF THRONES, and DR. WHO, one wonders if the design illusions of history might be an attractive marketing tool. I mused on the affect of a period design. Taste may have swung. Appetites eager for escape from the world around them.
HENRY 4 is worth catching. John Bell's Performance is a MUST for all theatre lovers to savour.
Exclude disguised John, and exclude yourself from comprehending and expanding with the majesty of craft and art, I say. All the world, may gather wonderful meaning, from this company, from this Falstaff.
"Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world."
The production closes this week. GO.
P.S. Shall we see THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR?