henry 4 revLeft – John Bell and Matthew Moore. Photo – Pierre Toussaint

Bell Shakespeare has combined two of Shakespeare’s rarely performed plays, Henry 4 Part 1 and Part 2, into one epic adventurous tale for their first production of 2013. Touring around Australia, director John Bell has updated this production (solidly based on his 1998 version) to the present day and presents to us a perspective of English history, class system and civil unrest.

The company have produced a 3+ hours ripping yarn that is funny, touching, revolting, and thought provoking, often all in the same scene. It is a testament to the company of actors and creative staff that the audience remain engaged for the duration, and the play, unknown to many, is understandable.

There are two key plots in Henry 4; that of the rebellious Prince Hal (Matthew Moore) getting up to mischief with his drunk and disorderly cohorts, trying to escape his strained relationship with his father King Henry the 4th; and the growing civil unrest and eventual rebellion against the King led by his previously loyal supporters.

An industrial looking stage (designed by Stephen Curtis) greets patrons as they enter the Heath Ledger Theatre, with a huge Union Jack made out of milk crates as the backdrop. A shipping sea container provides a different point for entry/exit to the stage, and the ladder and pole to stage left are used in various scenes to provide height. Kelly Ryall’s sound design alternates between providing a chilling undercurrent of tension and loud discordant music (or rock music, depending on your opinion) played on stage. Off stage sounds (such as door knocks) were extraordinarily over amplified, to the point that they were distracting.

John Bell, at a mere 72 years old, not only directs (along with Damien Ryan) but portrays Falstaff, one of the most well-known Shakespearian characters. He does this with gusto, and it is evident he is relishing the role as the debauched, fat, lewd man who has led Prince Hal astray, and has no qualms about pocketing rich young men’s money in return for excusing them from war, even if it leaves him with a group of feeble young boys.

Some of the best insults are in these Henry plays and are associated with Falstaff. One of my favourites is, “Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” Shakespeare was brilliant with insults.

As King Henry, David Whitney embodies the power and ruthlessness of a man who usurped and killed the previous king. His stage presence is commanding, and even I felt cowered (in H row) when he dressed down Prince Hal – “Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair / That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours / Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!”

But it was Matthew Moore as Prince Hal that stole the show for me. “And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son...” The depth of the character was evident in Moore’s delivery and understated portrayal of a son who openly rebels against his father, but quietly plans to come out shining to lead the country. He knows, even as he cavorts with Falstaff and his thieving cronies, that he will rise to the challenge of King and make his father proud, and Moore easily brings this intelligent young man to life.

The final scenes are powerful, especially the scene in which Falstaff is rejected. Here, the transformation of Prince Hal into Henry V is complete as he tells Falstaff and the crowd "I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers ..." It’s a harsh moment and even though Falstaff is a twat (and worse), it’s hard not to be moved by Bell’s interpretation in these scene.

I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s “History Plays”, with their patriotism and heroic speeches. The Henry 4 plays are rarely performed, so I’m extremely glad that Bell Shakespeare has brought this grand tale to life. It’s definitely one worth seeing.

Perth Theatre Trust, State Theatre Centre and Bell Shakespeare Present
by William Shakespeare | adapted by John Bell

Director John Bell with Damien Ryan
Venue: State Theatre Centre | 174 William St, Perth
Dates: 5 – 13 April, 2013
Tickets: $75 – $25
Bookings: 1300 795 012 | www.ticketek.com.au

Most read Perth reviews

A small group of amateur actors, some professionals, no overarching theme for some ten minute...

To this critic, as to many Short+Sweet patrons, this programme of two peformances of 12...

Every one of the eleven short plays were excellent. Their very different topics and...