The new Elizabethans: Bell Shakespeare's Henry 4

I’ve never been a huge fan of Shakespeare’s History plays; they’ve always seemed a bit dull, a jumble of big speeches and set pieces interspersed with a lot of bickering and fighting amongst political factions. With Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry 4, however, that has all changed. John Bell calls it Britain’s ‘national poem,’ and you could almost extend that to Australia, I guess. From its opening cacophony of drums and guitar, to the breaking of the set, the raucous rabble of the taverns and the streets, the political manipulating and the ultimate redemption at the end, I don’t think I’ve seen a Shakespeare play done as viscerally and as hauntingly poetic since Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in November 2010.
Written in two parts performed in 1596 and 1597 respectively, Henry IV was based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and an anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Part One deals with the rebel problem in the North, and Prince Hal’s rebellion against his duties; Hal, spurred into action by his father’s scorn, kills Hotspur at Shrewsbury, proving himself somewhat. Part Two sees Hal fall back into his old ways with his friends, while Falstaff is sent away to gather soldiers; upon the illness and death of Henry IV, Hal assumes the crown and becomes Henry V, banishing his old acquaintances. However so much the play appears to depict historical events, “to call any of [Shakespeare’s] plays ‘histories’ is somewhat misleading, because historical events and personages are so heavily fictionalised,” John Bell wrote in The Australian. “To the Elizabethans, history was a mix of myth, legend, folklore, moralising and propaganda. Historical figures and events [illustrated] moral treatises, patterns of behaviour, warnings of consequences and character archetypes.”

In his Director’s Notes, John Bell discusses how the plays, whilst epic in scope, are filled with a bustle, the sense “of a country on the move… Scene by scene, we are rushed from Westminster to Eastcheap, to Gloucestershire, to Shrewsbury.” Part One in particular, oscillates between Henry IV’s court, the Boar’s Head tavern where Falstaff and Hal hold court, and the rebel court where Hotspur and his uncles are plotting against the king. This relentless shifting in an almost cyclical fashion continues almost in sequence throughout much of the play until they all converge upon the Shrewsbury battlefield in Act V. By following the line of movement from Part One through to Part Two, the latter beginning almost exactly where the former ended, there is a strong sense of return but also of a world irrevocably changed, almost as if overnight. Still maintaining much of the structure of Part One, Shakespeare shows us in Part Two an “exhausted world […] shuddering in civil unrest. Old, ill, and dying men dominate the play… It is a country of old men” and the fathers in this world are fast “slouching toward their end.” It is a rather forlorn play, the characters look more careworn and older, more weary; in many respects more philosophical about their lives and or actions, more elegiac, a hymn to the green fields Falstaff babbles about on his deathbed. Gone is the knockabout energy of Part One; what we are left with is a world that is more serious, a world in which Prince Hal might yet become the king he’s meant to, a world in which he comes closer to being the Henry V of legend. By the same token, Part Two is perhaps ‘no country for old men’ – rather than necessarily a reflection of Shakespeare’s world view (he is, after all, the writer who gave us Lear, Prospero, Duke Senior and Polonius), it is instead a reflection on the age in which he was writing, a reflection on the burgeoning cultural backdrop of his time. 
You cannot ignore Falstaff when discussing Henry IV, nor can you avoid it; played by John Bell, he is a bit of an ageing biker, all leather jackets and chains and torn jeans in Part One, and a vaguely Ray Hughesian rather well-off gentleman-of-state in Part Two. He’s very much the lifeblood of Part One, almost in every scene, but despite his endless energy and quipping, his witty comebacks and insults, he is a rather pathetic character in a way. Falstaff needs the attention and affirmation of others to survive, to thrice, and this is particularly keenly observed in the ‘buckram cloak’ scene (Part One, II.4), where Hal and Poins goad Falstaff into telling how he was set upon by a gang of ruffians whose numbers curiously multiply and swell with every passing second. It’s a very clever scene, too, in which we see just how manipulative Hal can be in order to achieve what he wants. The ‘playing-at-kings’ scene which follows it is but another in which Falstaff feeds of his audience’s merriment as much as the sack and capons he devours. It is also the first sign of Hal’s eventual reformation, the first inkling of what he is capable of should he become king, the deadly seriousness hiding eversoclose beneath the layabout façade he presents – “I do, I will.” Falstaff is almost like Don Quixote, in a way, always threatening to run away with the play if only someone would give him half a chance; just as Quixote’s story is always interrupted, so too are Falstaff’s tavern scenes interrupted by a knocking at the door, by messengers appearing, or the Prince entering with Poins. Each interruption is designed to keep Falstaff bounded within the play, to make sure he doesn’t run away with it, turn it into a star vehicle, transcend his literary confines. If directed well, as Bell and Ryan have done, there should be a balance between the character of Falstaff and the journey of Hal, though the two stories are inherently intertwined. It is Hal who is the centre of Henry IV, even if it is his father after whom the play is titled; it is Hal who emerges ‘triumphant’ at the play’s end, Hal who transforms from layabout to heir to the throne; it is Hal who is our focus point throughout the play, Hal who Vice and Justice fight over.
Hal is essentially a kind of Everyman character, and Shakespeare’s play is very much a riff on the medieval Morality plays that were still popular in Elizabethan England in the early 1590s. If Falstaff is the Vice, then King Henry could be posited as Justice and Order, the figure to which Hal must look on as his role model. In contrast to the Morality plays where Vice was always defeated at the play’s conclusion, the end of Henry IV, Part One sees Hotspur dead by Hal’s hand while Falstaff lives to “lie another day, Christ-like, Vice-like, in his resurrection.” By the end of Part Two, Hal has “perfect knowledge both of himself, [his capabilities,] and of the world around him… [He is] the Renaissance conception of the perfect ruler.” Played by Matthew Moore, Hal is indignant at the mistreatment and misuse of others and himself, while knowing how to manipulate one person against another to maximum effect. While perfectly encapsulating Hal’s layabout pre-reformation days, Moore’s ultimate smartening up seems slightly too abrupt to be entirely credible, though I think that could be something in Shakespeare’s play, as opposed to Bell’s adaptation or Moore’s performance. What I did feel though, was that Hal’s apology to his dying father was genuine, was as much an apology to his father as to himself, a resolution to be a better king than he was a prince. And as his first act as king is to banish his old acquaintances, something he threatened back in the tavern in Eastcheap, we get the impression he will hold to his very word.
The set, designed by Stephen Curtis, is dominated by a giant Union flag made from milk crates. To the left of the stage, a shipping container, to the right a rabble of drums and couches, tables, detritus from a pub or tavern. A drum kit sits nestled in the corner, and a ladder reaches up the right side of the stage. And amongst it all, there is a sweaty, grimy, pulsing heart, a vitality which could so easily have been lost in the hands of another director. But under John Bell’s direction, in collaboration with Damien Ryan, Shakespeare’s play is shaped and sculpted into a (long but by no means tiring) three-and-a-half hour meditation on the manner of politics, appearances, and the relationship between father and son, of the rabble to the powerful, the streets to the cabinet rooms. Henry 4 is peppered with scenes that pulse with an undisguised masculinity, while either side of them, moments like Mistress Quickly helping Doll Tearsheet, Masters Shallow and Silence (Sean O’Shea and Arky Michael respectively) lamenting the passing of old friends whilst watching a soccer game between potential soldierly recruits; Nathan Lovejoy and Yalin Ozucelik’s policemen, Lovejoy and O’Shea’s German tourists; the battle of Shrewsbury, Lovejoy (and cast) singing ‘Jerusalem’ – sit like gloves, neither disrupting or breaking the play’s momentum and flow, all contributing to the painterly jigsaw of scenes and characters that Shakespeare writes so well. As has become customary of Bell Shakespeare productions, the cast are uniformly excellent, and though some parts may be small, barely a scene or two, each character feels real, lived-in, almost as if you know them, and it’s a tremendous testament to Bell and Ryan’s direction that it is thus.
Dickensian in its range of characters and as truthful as Chekhov, Henry IV is more than just a ‘national poem.’ It’s a landscape, a “people-scape, by Hogarth, Bruegel, Grosz – every figure brilliantly observed and depicted with [a] ferocious compassion.” It’s the story of a son and father reconciling their differences and politics, about the young and the old, about the kinds of people you’d find in the bars and pubs, the nightclubs, the chambers of power and on the streets today. It’s about as current and as topical as you can get, and it is theatre at its most mirror-like, at its most mercurial, its most transcendent.
One holds the hope for Moore in Henry 5 next year, too.

Theatre playlist: 12. London Calling, The Clash

Fn: I’ve always thought of Falstaff as being similar to Professor Slughorn in the Harry Potter books, in that he is almost as much a part of the furniture of the Hog’s Head tavern in Hogsmeade as Falstaff is in the Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap; they aren’t quite as appealing or exciting when they are outside the tavern’s walls, when they are taken out of the context of the play. 

Postlude, 29/06/2013: In his Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed predicted that Henry IV would die in Jerusalem. Shakespeare, using Holinshed’s Chronicles as the basis for his History plays, reiterated this prophecy. Whilst Henry himself took this to mean he would die on crusade, he in fact died in the ‘Jerusalem’ chamber in the house of the Abbot of Westminster in 1413, during a session of Parliament. Bell’s use of Parry’s hymn in his production seems all the more elegiac and haunting, almost eerily perfect now.

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