The unrepentant but charismatic reprobate Falstaff owns the stage in Bell Shakespeare’s latest work, Henry 4, now at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre until May 26.
John Bell has always wanted to play Falstaff, and it shows. He throws himself into the role with evident relish, playful and bold with his interpretation. Bell is disgustingly hilarious as he scratches his arse, pisses in a mug and then drinks from it, and generally cavorts with glee.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, Falstaff would be a loveable scoundrel were he not so completely and shamelessly amoral. There is no loyalty in the man, nor does he even show any of that renowned honour among thieves. But this rogue has an inexplicable appeal.
Matthew Moore as young Prince Hal almost gives Bell a run for his money. The relationship between Falstaff and the temporarily dissolute Prince of Wales is the most interesting in the play, providing a fascinating parallel with Hal’s relationship with his father King Henry IV, played as a very dignified figure by David Whitney.
Slumming it in his “getting of wisdom” period, Prince Hal comes under the influence of Falstaff and the world over which he rules. In this realm Hal even agrees to participate in a robbery, if only for the lark of playing a hoax on Falstaff.
But he is never fooled by Falstaff’s bluster and boastfulness; he always knows what manner of man he is dealing with. When in the end Hal rejects Falstaff, he has decided that he no longer wants to tolerate what Falstaff represents. In fact, he sees it as his duty not to tolerate it, determined to be the man his father wanted him to be.
Falstaff also evolves over the course of the play, from ‘bikie’ rogue to gentrified conman, but he remains the same self-centred charismatic comic character who has delighted audiences for centuries.
Henry 4 combines two of the history plays, Henry IV Part I and II, and this sets a frantic pace: battles are fought and won very quickly, kings die, we move on.
The plot deals with King Henry’s efforts to secure his kingdom and pass the throne peacefully to Prince Hal, his rebellious son and heir. The crown has not come easily to Henry Bolingbroke who, banished by his cousin King Richard II, returns with an army. With the help of the Percy family of Northumberland, he ousts Richard who is then murdered in prison. Boligborke takes the crown to become Henry IV, but there is always the sense that his throne is not quite legitimate .
This results in the Percy family feeling betrayed, and amassing an army against King Henry, led by Harry Percy (Hotspur) played in great macho style by Jason Klarwein. Under threat, the king calls on his son to help him defend his kingdom.
Prince Hal rises to the occasion, even though this is the world from which he has dropped out, a landscape of intrigue, betrayal and the struggle for power. We are reminded of this struggle when Prince Hal comes upon his father sleeping and believing him to be dead, places the crown upon his own head.
The play opens in the world of Falstaff, a world characterised by contemporary music and the youthful, unrestrained bedlam that defines Hal’s rebellion. This first scene is excitingly vibrant, thanks to Kelly Ryall’s entertaining score and the impressive Stephen Curtis set.
Loud early Brit Rock accompanies the entry of Falstaff and his merry band of young, loud and irreverent louts in the immediate aftermath of a riot that partly destroys a massive Union Jack backdrop cleverly created with stacked milk crates.
The audience is transported to a ‘bikie’ lair with a jukebox, a band, a dartboard and even pole dancing. This is a dynamic world of pubs and brothels, booze and larks. Above all it’s fun and has a vitality that stands in stark contrast to the ambitious intensity that surrounds the court in later scenes.
You can understand why Hal wants to hang out there for a while but in the end he chooses to take his place as king: in a similar position Falstaff would have made the same choice.
Damien Ryan and John Bell have done a great job co-directing this very entertaining three-hour play, aided by a very able cast. The female roles are not as central but Wendy Strehlow gives a spirited performance as Mistress Quickly, especially when berating Falstaff for his broken promises and exploitation.
This is one of the best Bell Shakespeare productions in years, a wonderful contemporary adaptation, but even for Bell’s performance alone, it’s a must-see.
Henry 4 is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 26. For more information and to book visit the Bell Shakespeare website.