Superhal, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad as a superhero origin story, will have its world premiere at NIDA Parade Theatre from March 7 to 18.
The work, presented by the Puzzle Collective, takes the audience to an alternate future England ruled by beings with superhuman powers. Told over three plays by Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V, Superhal will contextualise the story for a modern audience and present the classical characters using imagery and archetypes that audiences are familiar with from the superhero genre.
Young Prince Hal rebels against the King, his father, associating with thieves, pimps and drunkards. When his father dies and the country is plunged into civil war, Hal grows up fast to become a soldier and then a king.
Written and directed by John Galea (The Tempest – Steampunked!), the work aims to combine the fantasy sci-fi of the Marvel comics with the poetry and genius of Shakespeare.
“I just love Shakespeare, I always have. I very rarely find a play I would prefer to put on instead of Shakespeare, including my own. I know I’m working with a good writer,” Galea said. “Few writers write in poetry. This is not just a script; it’s highly crafted language that reinforces the content with poetry. That brings an extra level of understanding and deep knowledge of the content.”
The 36-year-old director said the work was still very relevant, pointing particularly to Shakespeare’s treatment of the female characters. “The scenes could be from any contemporary drama,” he said. “For a man writing in the 1500s he’s very insightful about how women feel.”
The concept for the work came to Galea while he was watching Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 in which John Bell played Falstaff. “Watching that play I also realised it was the source of The Godfather. Henry IV is very much a man with a dodgy past who becomes a cultural hero. He understood the ordinary people and had an ability to mix with commoners like Falstaff but turns away from that life. In time he mourns what he has lost and Henry V is about him getting it all back.”
Galea said the Bell Shakespeare play focused on the Henry IV arc, the origin of the hero.“You see where the tales of Batman and Superman came from, how they get to be who they are – in other words the origin story of the superhero,” he said. “Superheroes all have that backstory.”
A fan of pop culture references and the sci-fi world, Galea said audiences connected quickly with these genres.
In this imagined future England, aristocrats and soldiers possess extraordinary abilities. Hal the Lion has superpowers and a suit of armour like Ironman’s and his crown is a lion helmet with a glowing Fleur-de-lis on his chest.
“Falstaff is in a fat suit that makes him look like the Hulk after he stops working out and Lady Kate Percy in the battle scene generates water in people’s lungs to drown them. The Dauphin of France is lightning, with lighting effects, and Hotspur has pyrotechnics of fireballs shooting flames,” Galea said. “Each of these characters could have their own comic strip. We use lots of little tricks, particularly customised, and had to come up with unusual solutions to make it work on stage.”
His aim is to make the show relevant to all ages and interests and Galea is convinced the work would have Shakespeare’s full approval. “Shakespeare would cringe to think anything he had done had become elitist,” he said. “We’re aiming for a mix – people who like pop culture with Shakespeare and people who like Shakespeare with pop culture, and bring the two together. The sort of blend that would lead a 12-year-old to think, ‘I thought Shakespeare was boring’ and would inspire a 60-year-old to think, ‘I’ll go watch a Marvel movie’.”
This imaginative approach will provide audiences with an unusual experience: exciting fast-paced action with a thoughtful exploration of moral questions. “You will see something that reminds you of Marvel but that has a depth you didn’t expect. It will make you laugh and cry, and take you to a place that explores moral questions, enthralling but make you reflect and feel like you’ve been taken somewhere else.”
The work poses these questions: Who are your real friends? What do you do with power when you get it? How far is it acceptable to go to retain that tenuous hold on power? “As Hal asks himself why he is invading a country he comes to the realisation that it is vital to become more humble the more power a human gets.”
These issues are explored in the language but also the action, and the work also touches on gender issues through gender swaps such as allocating the King of France lines to Queen Isabel who becomes the main monarch.
The Superhal cast includes Richard Hilliar (Edward II) starring as Hal, Emily Weare as Queen Isabel, John Michael Burdon as Falstaff and David Attrill as King Henry IV. Costume designer Clare McCutcheon creates the superhero costumes and Victor Spiegel’s original soundtrack is supplemented with some contemporary pop tracks.
The Puzzle Collective, set up in 2012, is a partner share arrangement made up of artists, writers, actors and engineers. “We’re putting our own money into it, that’s how we operate. Everyone is doing it for the love of it and there’s a great community feeling,” Galea said. “The entire cast and crew are amazing. Everyone is exploring their own limits and it’s very exciting. But eventually I’d like to get to the point where we can pay people.”
Dates: 7 –18 March (Preview: 7 March, Opening: 8 March)
Venue: NIDA Parade Theatre, 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington NSW
Tickets: Adult $45.85 / Concession $35.65