Live review: Henry IV (Bell Shakespeare)

Bell Shakespeare's canny updated adaptation compresses six hours of history plays neatly into three.

Uneasy may lie the head that wears the crown in Henry IV (Parts One and Two), but in Bell Shakespeare’s production, it hardly matters: that drunk old humbug Falstaff is front and centre, and what a joy he is.

John Bell’s masterful, nuanced depiction of the bard’s most lovable antihero drives this punkish adaptation, which sometimes lacks lyricism and interest in its more serious scenes. However, loss of gravitas is a small price to pay – a three-hour-plus long Shakespeare history play can frequently be turgid territory, yet Falstaff, aided by solid comic entourage, makes this a rollicking ride.

There is much colour and noise in the England envisioned by Bell (who also directs, along with Damien Ryan), a vision that includes air guitars, German tourists, an inept suburban soccer team, a Les Mis–inspired battle song and a rather incomprehensible bike courier. The political scenes are played more straight, with the exception of Jason Klarwein’s Hostpur, who has an ill-fitting tendency towards camp. It is also a little hard to believe that Matthew Moore’s Hal possesses the vitality required to command any army, let alone one that would go on to win at Agincourt in Henry V.  Nevertheless, the plot is clear and the action engaging, two aspects particularly invaluable to those unfamiliar with the play.

While there is the ubiquitous sign-language and genital grabbing found in almost every modern production of Shakespeare (directors insist on never letting the audience miss a sexual reference, as much as we may want to), it is thankfully not too heavy-handed as to overshadow the genuine wit of the play.

Shakespearean history at its most accessible and entertaining. Get thee to the Sydney Opera House before the chimes at midnight.

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Live review: Henry IV (Bell Shakespeare)
John Bell as Falstaff: discovering his inner clown
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