Henry 4

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John Bell as Falstaff. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

Drama Theatre, April 20, 2013

John Bell plays Sir John Falstaff with such glee it is as though a life’s ambition is being fulfilled. The two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV were always Falstaff’s plays, interspersed with King Henry’s angst over the soundness of his kingdom and the soundness of his son, and Prince Hal’s transition from hooligan to Henry V. But whenever Falstaff is absent we miss him.

In cutting and combining the two plays to create Henry 4 Bell has wisely trimmed more politics than Falstaff. The curious exception is the loss of the delightful battlefield exchange where Hall asks to borrow Sir John’s pistol, and what the fat knight produces from his holster is a flask of sherry.

But otherwise Falstaff is magnificently intact, and Bell inhabits his monstrousness with such warmth, vulgarity, thirst, appetite, lust, bravado and charming immorality as to ensure the show prospers. If we lose a little of Falstaff’s heaving intelligence, we are compensated with glimpses of a profound sadness about his creeping age and being scorned by the newly crowned Hal. Across the three hours, however, Bell did wander from an assumed voice to his own, probably fatigued by wearing a fat-suit under lights.

Because Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation bathes us in laughs we weather the dryness of the back-stabbing politics that compete with Sir John for space on the stage.

The setting is contemporary, which, as ever, creates jarring moments, but generally works. Bell has directed the production with help from Damien Ryan upon a Stephen Curtis-designed set depicting industrial waste and decay. The tearaway pace has the scenes flowing into each other amid vibrant, energised physical action.

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Arky Michael, Felix Jozeps, Yalin Ozucelik, Terry Bader and Wendy Strehlow surround Matthew Moore and John Bell. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.

The problems, as ever, are with command of the language, and the consequences for characterisation. Standing out with their assurance in this regard are Arky Michael (whose various small roles include the ludicrous Silence) and Tony Llewellyn Jones (Westmoreland). Matilda Ridgeway is also superb as both Lady Percy and Doll Tearsheet.

Jason Klarwein is more as convincing Pistol than Hotspur, a role requiring charisma as well as anger. Hal is probably the hardest character to nail, with his mood swings and reinvention of himself. In fact there is little to like in the man, and yet it must be credible that Falstaff would befriend him. Despite seeming too highly strung and not being entirely secure with the language, Matthew Moore’s depiction contains an essence of truth.

The 14-strong company includes Wendy Strehlow (the bustling Mistress Quickly – a credible foil for Falstaff) and Ben Wood (as Douglas, the dementedly belligerent Scot). Sean O’Shea has fun with Shallow and David Whitney is the paragon of self-justification that is Henry IV.

The scenes where Falstaff pretends to be Hal’s father and where he muses on the nature of honour will warm the memory deep into winter.

Until May 26.