Left – Matthew Moore. Cover – Yalin Ozucelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Felix Jozeps, Wendy Strehlow, Terry Bader and Arky Michael. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
A post-industrial landscape meets a little Brit kitsch in Bell Shakespeare’s latest work to grace the stage of Canberra’s Playhouse. Opening with the dissonance of early Brit Rock and the destruction of a massive Union Jack (a very pleasing sight), Bell’s Henry 4 is young, pithy and full of the muck, mire and joy of life.
Not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, Henry IV, which was written in two parts but is here presented by Bell in one, tells the story of King Henry IV’s efforts to restabilise his kingdom and rein in his recalcitrant son and heir. Led astray by the inimitable Falstaff, Prince Hal confides to the audience that he has every intention of turning himself into a fine king, but that he will undertake a transformation so that the light of his leadership may shine the brighter. Stewed in the drunkenness and debauchery of Falstaff’s merry cohort, he jokes his way through life until the threat to his father’s throne seems great enough to warrant his repentance.
The manner in which this production deals with Prince Hal’s persona is admirable, and ever so appropriate for this production, which was chosen as a major contribution to the Canberra Theatre Centre’s Collected Works season. Collected Works does something quite remarkable in this disjointed Commonwealth; it brings works from each of our states and territories into a single curated season. A great concept; subtle, and with a significant symbolism; for a century now, Canberra has been attempting to turn a bunch of rather maladjusted and obnoxious British colonies into a single, confident nation. By drawing these works together, there is a symbolic federation of a national theatre occurring, and what a magnificent choice amongst them is Henry IV. With a story set amongst the turmoil of the unification of the British peoples, and with a marvellously kitsch giant Union Jack pixelated from milk crates for its backdrop, this production sits ever so awkwardly in our charmingly awkward national capital. The heart-warming resolution of this play offers hope; perhaps one day Canberra will, like Prince Hal, succeed in uniting a reluctant Commonwealth.
The cast is just what one expects from Bell Shakespeare; meticulous and measured, and all but one with a long list of previous credits in lieu of a bio for the program. Henry IV is played steadily by David Whitney. I will apologise for the spoiler, though I don’t think spoilers are a great problem for audiences of Shakespeare; his death is understated and elegant, precisely what is called for in the moment. It is the quiet death of a partisan that paves the way for unification.
Falstaff is handled with the dignity this great enigma of English theatre deserves. John Bell’s performance permits the interpretation of him as the oracle that lights up the myth of political power, and yet at the same time he is the rebel, threatening the natural order of the realm. This is a remarkable balance to strike, and it is splendid to see this giant character brought into such focus.
Henry IV stands or falls on the energy of Prince Hal, and Matthew Moore delivers a massive punch of energy in the role. I was not convinced, perhaps, of the integrity of his transformation, but this is a relatively minor quibble that I think had more to do with the text. He otherwise embodies the two sides of the great Henry V.
Despite the achievements of the cast, I think the real star here is Stephen Curtis’s brilliant set. At the start of the play, the audience is greeted with the impressive backdrop of milk crates depicting the Union Jack I keep returning to, which ties the whole play together. A shipping container and a range of other post-industrial detritus complete the post-industrial landscape, and the scene is reminiscent of an abandoned steel mill in a declining Newcastle at either of the antipodes.
In all, this is an excellent production, with some very deep and significant connections to Canberra in her centenary year, certainly many more than I expected to find.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Director John Bell With Damien Ryan
CANBERRA THEATRE CENTRE
Previews: 23 & 24 February
Season: 26 February – 9 March
Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au, 02 6275 2700
ARTS CENTRE MELBOURNE
Preview: 14 March
Season: 15 – 30 March
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au, 1300 182 183
STATE THEATRE CENTRE
HEATH LEDGER THEATRE
Season: 5 – 13 April
Bookings: ticketek.com.au, 1300 795 013
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
Previews: 19-21 April
Season: 23 April – 26 May
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com, 02 9250 7777