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 IV 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…
The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.
- Ron Cerabona’s view, as published in the Canberra Times and the Age
- John McCallum drools a little over JB, less so over Matthew Moore, published in The Australian
- Frank McKone articulates his disappointment with the production, over on Canberra Critics Circle
- The Barefoot Review by Deborah Hawke
Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 6:31 am
One of the things you mentioned the text, which … as I understand it, is a melding of two different Shakespeare Plays (Shakespeare wrote a Part I and a Part II – he was the Peter Jackson of his day, overextending a simple narrative!). From my high-school reading (Henry IV part I was my HSC Shakespeare), Part I has most of the good stuff, except that it doesn’t have the ending (it ends with Hal defeating Hotspur), and Part II slightly feels like it’s playing for time until it can get to Act IV and Henry IV can die so Hal can rise to Henry V – the rebellion that is defeated at the end of Part I comes back so it can be defeated again, there’s another less funny scene of Hal fooling Falstaff, and generally it suffers from waiting to get to the good stuff late in the play. The problem with melding the two is that you tend to end up with too much of the padding of Part II (because there are a bunch of popular scenes with Falstaff in them), and not enough of Part I (in particular the rebellion tends to get the brunt of the trims).
When you talk about the issue of “The text”, are you actually talking about the one Shakespeare wrote or the Franken-text that Bell’s doing based on squishing two different plays together and cutting them down for time?
Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 9:39 am
It is possible that my sensibility on this point is coloured heavily by the culture I grew up in, but it is mostly Shakespeare’s text I am referring to. Henry IV Part I, Act III, Scene 2, in particular. I don’t quite buy Hal’s transformation. A selfish and condescending speech from dad and he’s turned to the right? That’s not the hero he otherwise depicts. He changes too quickly, and his character is otherwise more strong-willed.
I actually think Bell redeems it a little, but it’s still a case of that transformation being the most interesting part of the character (across all three of his plays), and Shakespeare bypasses it too quickly, giving us other guff in its place. I want to see Hal change, and I don’t think either Shakespeare’s text or Bell’s liberties quite do the character justice (and I should probably admit I know nothing of the actual history or how Shakespeare’s Henry V (the character) matches England’s Henry V (the king).
Thing is, I don’t know how coloured my judgement is. I recall an equivalent speech from my own late father that didn’t have the desired effect! Maybe I’m assuming Henry V is a little more like me than he really is…
Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 3:53 pm
See, I don’t quite see Part I, Act III, Scene 2 quite playing out the way you do – given that Hal goes back to Falstaff (and, while being the one who kills Hotspur, lets Falstaff take the credit), that conversation’s more about two political animals conning one another. Henry IV is a brutal political animal who knows that he seized his kinghood more through being the right man at the right time than through any personal virtue. And Hal is playing the waiting game, as indicated in his first speech in the play (“to pay the debt I never promised”). Henry wants a better son (one of his first speeches has him wishing Hotspur was his son instead). Hal has no intention of being that child, but is aware how far outside the lines he’s been running.
The real reconciliation is in Part II, Act IV, on Henry’s deathbed, when Hal comes to the unconscious king, and, thinking him dead, takes his crown – and what comes after. At least, that’s my interpretation. I’m happy to write off the first three acts of Part II, as they’re basically recap – but the last two acts contain great stuff that should be seen.
If these moments aren’t in Bell’s version, that’s not Shakespeare’s fault.
Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 9:34 pm
Oh, and … you’re not Henry V unless, when wooing your wife, you first conquered her country and then got her to teach you her native language.
Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 6:47 pm
The three moments you mention have been retained in Bell’s cut; it’s the vagaries that make me question Shakespeare’s text. Does Hal really change, or does he pursue a cunning plan? Is he feigning transformation in this scene or in another? And the competing trajectories throw even more doubt about… I don’t have an objection to complexity in characters, but these confuse the narrative, which is not usually a good idea. I don’t think here the writer has given sufficient clarity for the character to be fully developed.
At any rate, it’s not even close to a fatal flaw. The play stands on the merits of Bell’s vision and great performances. I think Bell could have been more brutal in cutting the text, as there’s still some fat in it, but never a dull moment, so I’m a fan.