Thursday, 11 June 1998

Henry IV, by Bell Shakespeare, June 11, 1998

Henry IV by William Shakespeare by Bell Shakespeare Company
 at The Merlin Theatre Malthouse until June 27, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around June 10, 1998

Shakespeare's Henry IV is a study of the quest for power. It reveals the corruption of rulers, the folly of princes, the vanity of power-seekers and the myriad weaknesses of humankind. To paraphrase Falstaff, honour is for the dead.

In the Bell Shakespeare Company production, director, John Bell pares Parts 1 and 2 down to a rollicking 3 hours that happily and anachronistically skip in style from merry mediaeval England to contemporary Bovva-Boy troubled UK.

Henry IV (Richard Piper) replaces his deposed cousin, Richard II, only to be hounded by the ungrateful and hotheaded Hotspur, (Darren Gilshenan) who joins Wales and Scotland in rebellion. Henry's son, Prince Hal (Joel Edgerton) is engaged in revels with his bawdy acquaintance, Falstaff (John Gaden) until Part 2 when he inherits the crown and must give up childish things, which evidently include his 'friends'.

Part One travels at a cracking pace with battles and jokes coming thick and fast. Bell contrasts the pomp of the court with the raucous ribaldry of the inn where Falstaff rules as the clown prince. Clear parallels are drawn between crimes wrought by Henry and the petty thieving of the inn-fellows. Shakespeare did not present a pretty picture of the ruling house for his Queen Elizabeth.

Part Two is slower and theatrically less interesting because all the action has already taken place. Essentially we wait for Henry to die and Hal to discard Falstaff like a used rag.

With fight director, Steve Douglas-Craig , Bell has created colourful battle scenes reminiscent of marauding soccer hooligans. They chant "Harry Percy" and sing choruses of Liverpool's theme song, "You'll Never Walk Alone".

Gaden demonstrates his incomparably stylish delivery as Falstaff, the lovable rogue and the versatile Gilshenan is superbly overwrought as Hotspur and over-sexed as Pistol. Edgerton is capable as Prince Hal but seems more comfortable in the lighter first part.

Bell's fine ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles, revel in the blokiness of the play - even the two women (Carole Skinner, Rebecca Massey) Highlights were Tony Llewellyn-Jones' Welsh rebel, Glendower , Edwin Hodgeman as the raffish old legal eagle, Justice Shallow and cameos from Tony Taylor and the inimitable Duncan Wass.

The production is better-served by the Merlin after years at the cramped Athenaeum. Justin Kurzel's design is reminiscent of a nightclub alley. Its steeply raked stage is surrounded by cyclone wire, scrap metal and rock-and-roll detritus Alan John has created a thumping musical score which underscores dramatic tension.

This is an exciting and innovative production with broad appeal to a modern audience.

Kate Herbert

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