In Bell Shakespeare's acclaimed production, John Bell gives the don his due
With John Bell as both director and Falstaff, it's not surprising that this condensed production demonstrates convincingly that the two parts of Henry IV should have been titled Falstaff. In Part 1 Shakespeare gave the fat knight more lines than either the Prince of Wales or his father the King, and in Part 2 he says more than both of them combined. Here the Bell Shakespeare Company beautifully presents the royal historical side of the plot, such as the negotiations between the rebel aristocracy and the king, and is unflinching in its depiction of the lowly life of the rest of England, with occasional doses of pus, piss and puke. In his tattered bikey uniform of jeans, leather jacket, chains and a fried smiley T-shirt, Bell's red-eyed, red-nosed Falstaff has clearly had too many decades of too many drugs. His influence on the heir apparent is his father's worst nightmare, and although Falstaff genuinely loves the son he never had, both friends know that Falstaff is hoping the death of the King will signal promotion to a more than comfortable retirement.
Falstaff is commonly billed as "Shakespeare's greatest comic character" but he is more than a large, slow moving target who can be relied upon for witty repartee: a good production should allow him to be seen as a deeply tragic figure, struggling against the invincible forces of mortality, ageing, and material scarcity. As written, the impoverished knight is pathetic in the extreme, a poor and compulsive liar thoroughly busted in a set-up by his dodgy colleagues. He is a cheat, pilferer, coward, thief, opportunist and a habitual user of his friends. In the end he is humiliated with the greatest rebuff in literature ("I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers."). But when brought to life by a truly great actor such as Bell, we sense not only that this thoroughly condemned man is just like the rest of us, but more importantly that he retains in abundance some secret ingredient of humanity that in most of us has drained out almost entirely. The majesty of monarchs is by contrast a transparent sham. To call this secret ingredient "the human spirit" is merely to relabel it (misleadingly) rather than to explain it: it is elusive and fragile and resists packaging of all kinds, particularly DVD boxed sets. It is best seen in the theatre, in a fine production such as this, using an open mind.