The two parts of Henry IV are the high water mark of historical drama: Shakespeare at his most comprehensive. Together they take in everything from the low, bawdy and quotidian, tavern life observed with the energy and accuracy of an old Dutch master, to the highest affairs of state, political manoeuvring and military strategy in a kingdom riven by civil war.
They boast a clutch of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, chief among them Falstaff, the Bard’s greatest comic creation and a world unto himself ("banish plump Jack and banish all the world"). There’s also Prince Hal, next in line to the throne, a study in callow aimlessness, and Hotspur, Hal’s rival, a rebellious lord with a passion and talent for chivalry. There’s the king himself, Henry IV, old Bolingbroke, a career politician who discovers a new introspection as death closes in, and a smattering of the marvellous character roles – Justice Shallow, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet – small jewels in a rich tapestry.
This is not the first time John Bell has presented an abridged compact of Henry IV, and the version we see here follows a similar formula to his 1998 production, cutting away most of the war-like politics in part 2 and keeping the whole thing to a tick over three hours.
They make good time, but a good time it is not. This is little more than fancy-dress nonsense, an extreme eclecticism that goes beyond vaudeville antics or music hall fun to a base and ineffectual pedagogy. It’s the kind of production well meaning community theatre groups sometimes stage with high-school kids, with desperation the determining aesthetic: how but how can we make the kids see the relevance and importance of Shakespeare?
Thus a text larded with contemporary curse words that rub uncomfortably against the authentic ‘zounds’ and ‘whoresons’. Thus an onstage electric guitar and drum kit. Thus every character a comparison, Pistol ‘like’ a mad Rastafarian, Northumberland ‘like’ an Aussie grazier, Worcester ‘like’ a mining engineer, Doll Tearsheet ‘like’ an Underbelly moll, Shallow ‘like’ a suburban soccer coach. Etc.
This is a production that doesn’t trust its audience an inch. Everything is explained. Some of the translations seem fair enough – ‘wooden spoon’ for ‘dagger of lath’ – but the camp signalling all innuendo is the stuff of fairground mime.
Matthew Moore passes well enough for Hal when he has Falstaff to lean on, but at court he is wooden and unconvincing. Jason Klarwein stands out for his guileless Hotspur, while Wendy Stehlow (Mistress Quickly), Sean O'Shea (Shallow) and David Whitney (Henry IV) do at least enough to keep the crazy thing afloat.
John Bell, too, impresses – not as director, but as Falstaff. In fat suit and elasticised jeans, he plays the portly knight as a self-centred baby-boomer, a worn-out dilettante, a counter-culture veteran. That might sound like reason for trepidation, but his performance really is full of warmth and squinty-eyed wit, and shows all the nuance and range of an actor who has lived with Shakespeare more than five decades. It’s a work of deep affection, and we can only wish that, as a director, Bell had set himself to this same ambition: to realise the depth of his own admiration for Shakespeare, rather than to seek in costume novelties for something other people might like.