Bell Shakespeare brings Henry IV kicking and screaming into the 21st century with this marathon of Machiavellian political maneuverings that pit young punks against old geezers in a grungy atmosphere of garage music, fusty pubs and filthy streets. John Bell and his team have chosen to bring us the big picture of Henry IV by rolling Parts 1 & 2 into a single show, thereby condensing these two history plays into one rough-and-tumble, rollicking good time.
Designer Stephen Curtis has constructed a towering back wall made of red, white and blue milk crates stacked in the pattern of the Union Jack. Stage right is a sea container, which one imagines all the set pieces could be packed up inside of and pulled from at the show’s next touring destination. The costumes are all 80s and 90s revival, with a plethora of skinny jeans (but not for Falstaff, understandably), plaid shirts, legwarmers, and skinny ties.
It is an absolute joy to watch John Bell as Falstaff; he wends his way into our hearts as any good jolly old fat man should. He wins us over with teasing humour and silly jests straight from the gutter, even while his weaknesses and sins are laid bare, eliciting our empathy despite his abundance of flaws. Matthew Moore as Prince Hal has a wonderful ease in this role. His naturalism is quite a feat, given the intensely dramatic circumstances of the story, the hurdle of the language, and the character arc he must travel. He makes interesting choices and shows us many sides, and we believe his every word.
The ensemble of actors is marvellous – funny, committed and connected to the text. Across the board, every actor brings a unique element to the stage, often times in multiple roles. If you take your eyes off the main action for a moment to have a peek at the other actors in the scene, you’ll inevitably find something small, so as not to pull focus, but nonetheless fascinating going on.
In fact, it’s all the little things about this production that make it so entertaining. The pig picture is well planned and well executed, but it’s the finer touches, the details, and the found moments that sweep you along with the action like Mistress Quickly’s broom.
Bell Shakespeare has breathed so much new life and energy into this version of Henry IV, it’s astounding to realise that the original is over 400 years old. This company knows how to make Shakespeare fresh, accessible and relevant. These punks have taken Old Will’s literary kingdom and made it their own.