John Bell reinterprets Henry IV for a modern audience
The two parts of the brawling, sprawling Henry IV are the twin peaks of Shakespeare’s achievement and England’s great national poem, John Bell argues ahead of his new production
THERE’S a painting by Brueghel titled The Procession to Calvary. The viewer is confronted by a vast, bleak and barren landscape that looks much more like medieval Germany than biblical Palestine. In the distance a windmill perches precariously atop a craggy pinnacle of rock; crows peck at the remains of criminals stretched on gibbets. But for all its desolation, the landscape is teeming with activity, of people going about their business. An excited crowd is scurrying towards an execution site in the far distance. A wretched cart is on its way there carrying two forlorn criminals, one resigned to his fate, one wailing piteously. Shuffling alongside them are curious onlookers, their blank stares fixated on the victims, wondering how they’ll handle their hideous deaths. You scan the busy multitude, searching for the subject of the painting — and then you spot him in the middle of the picture: a diminutive figure in a drab grey gown, toting a heavy wooden cross. He is incidental to the action, a mere detail.
This picture was painted in 1564, the year Shakespeare was born. If it had been a painting of the Italian Renaissance, Christ and his followers would have been shown in close-up, occupying the whole canvas; and all the dramatis personae would be exhibiting the emotional extremes of pain and anguish. We would be expected to empathise, to be devoutly moved.
Brueghel’s view, like Shakespeare’s, is more dispassionate. People live and die, kings rise and fall, but all around them life goes on. Life is tough and there is no room for sentiment. Henry IV is a lot like that: there’s the big canvas — almost a map of Britain. The action rampages from the Palace of Westminster to the stews of Eastcheap, to the rugged territory of Northumberland and the wild mountains of Wales, to the rustic bliss of Gloucestershire (by way of Coventry) and the battlefield of Shrewsbury, to treacherous Gaultree Forest. In a key scene of Henry IV, Part One, the three rebel leaders actually take a knife to the map of England and carve it up, even proposing that a river be re-routed so they all get equal shares. This is historical theatre at its most graphic, its most Brechtian.
Like Brueghel’s extraordinary paintings, Henry IV is crammed with cameo roles, some grotesque but all astonishingly lifelike. To look at Brueghel or read Henry IV is to become a time traveller. No documentary film could capture life more authentically. There is a wonderful little scene in Henry IV, Part One that is nearly always cut in performance. This is partly because it is dispensable in terms of the action (and in today’s theatre directors are always looking for cuts) but also because it is written in such verbatim colloquial street slang that it is almost incomprehensible to a modern audience. It’s a scene between two carriers transporting goods. They whinge about the price of oats and the fact the pub won’t give them a chamber-pot so they have to ‘‘ leak in the chimney’’ ... I’d bet my boots that Shakespeare was lying awake in bed, heard these two guys yakking outside his window and just jotted it down. It’s an irresistible piece of verbatim theatre.
Henry IV was written in two parts. Shakespeare was confident of the success of Part One: with its boisterous action, comic robbery, lively battle, charismatic Hotspur and great Falstaff comedy scenes, it can be performed as a stand-alone work. It’s trickier to stage the more elegiac and melancholy Part Two on its own because you need to know the backstory. Falstaff is in decline, heroic battles give way to cynical treachery and there is a pervasive mood of death and decay.
But it is a rich lode that has its own gems: crazy ‘‘ Captain’’ Pistol, dotty country magistrates Shallow and Silence, and delectable doxies Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet.
For theatregoers, the best option is to see both parts of Henry IV on the same day or on successive evenings.
An alternative is to see an edited version that combines both parts in one evening. That has been done successfully a number of times. Orson Welles staged a version titled Chimes at Midnight, which he later transferred to the screen. In 1978, Richard Wherrett directed a version for Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre. Twenty years later I edited and directed my version for Bell Shakespeare and I am revising and tightening up that edit for my production this year.
There are losses, inevitably, in reducing the two plays into one. We miss something of the epic sprawl, the cycle of rebellion and perfidy and a range of interesting minor characters.
But there are gains as well: we are able to focus more intensely on the central struggle in the narrative — the tug of war between King Henry and Falstaff for the soul of Prince Hal. In the process, the play becomes less a historical chronicle and more a study of the dynamics
THE PUB WON’T GIVE THEM A CHAMBER-POT SO THEY HAVE TO ‘ LEAK IN THE CHIMNEY’
of family, with perhaps more appeal to a modern audience.
Common to both versions is the transformation of the disreputable party-boy Prince Harry into the charismatic Henry V. Is this transformation an exercise in cold-blooded pragmatism or simply a rite-of-passage experience, the painful transition from adolescent wildness to an adult assumption of responsibility? Most modern productions have tended to favour the former, more cynical interpretation.
From the 19th century and up to World War II, Shakespeare’s histories were seen as a patriotic panorama underscoring the glories of empire and the superiority of England. But subsequent horrors such as Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the misery of the Cold War soured perceptions of the romance of military conquest. Polish critic Jan Kott, with his seminal 1974 book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, ripped away the veil of romantic nostalgia that tradition had draped over the history plays. Rather, he saw them as a demonstration of realpolitik, the grinding and heartless machinations of political systems throughout the ages. Kott’s scepticism appealed to the intellectual theatre directors of the 1960s and 70s such as Peter Brook, Peter Hall and Michael Bogdanov, the latter seeing in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal the archetype of the Machiavellian political animal.
I think playing Prince Hal as a cold-blooded pragmatist is too simplistic. It may be a fashionable approach and one that neatly suits a particular political agenda, but it robs the actor (and the audience) of the potential for a richer, more complex experience. It is easy to see in Hal a lonely and insecure teenager who is in danger of going off the rails. His sombre, guilt-ridden and aloof father is trying to mould the boy in his own image for the sake of his own sense of security. His frequent expressions of disappointment and disapproval serve only to drive Hal further into the arms of Falstaff and his cronies at the Boar’s Head, where he finds fellowship, entertainment and a degree of adulation. Hal’s early soliloquy about his plan to reform his life may be more an expression of desperate aspiration than of cold-blooded strategy. Amid all the high jinks he is not duplicitous, but gives his pub companions ample warning that one day he
will turn his back on them. Falstaff in particular fails or refuses to hear the message. And even when Falstaff and co are temporarily banished, provision is made for their upkeep. Hal’s harshness is leavened by a degree of compassion.
It is up to the actor and director to decide how much they want to play up Hal’s ruthlessness or how far they wish to mitigate it without tipping into sentimentality. But whichever way you present it, Hal’s rejection of his youthful follies and assumption of responsibility is a familiar rite-of-passage saga intensified by the regal nature of his role and his genuine desire to live up to his father’s expectations.
Is Harry Shakespeare’s ideal king? As always, Shakespeare is ambivalent. Throughout Henry V we are given constant reminders of Henry’s ruthlessness. Hal/Henry V may be his most successful and charismatic leader of men, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the most likable. Charges of cruelty, hypocrisy and opportunism may be brought against him, even if they can be stoutly defended. As an audience, one may prefer the company of that ‘‘ great fool’’, the hugely entertaining Falstaff, or the naive but robust and sincere Hotspur. But if you want an object lesson on how to get to the top (and what it costs you along the way) then ‘‘ Harry the Fifth’s the man’’.
Hal certainly has a case to answer. In the second scene of Henry IV, Part One he quite bluntly tells the audience that his delinquent behaviour is nothing more than a front; that he will maintain it until such time as is convenient to cast it off and dazzle the world with his reformation. At that time he will discard all his cronies and assume his proper role as king. In the meantime he is studying the operations of his future subjects at close quarters — he learns their language, he learns their names, he knows where they live, he knows what makes them tick.
This exercise is the exact opposite of his father’s behaviour. King Henry is determined to keep himself aloof, mysterious, so that when he makes the occasional public appearance he may be more ‘‘ wondered at’’. He sees dignity and discipline as prerequisites to majesty and despairs of his heir’s feckless ways. The king is plagued by guilt and remorse. He has usurped the crown of his cousin, Richard II, who is subsequently murdered in prison. Henry’s part in the murder is unclear but he certainly carries the guilt. He is also paranoid, feeling threatened by those rebellious minions who helped him to the throne and now feel undervalued.
Once reconciled to his eldest son and convinced of his readiness to assume his regal responsibilities, the dying Henry advises Hal to ‘‘ busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’’ — that is, declare war on France. That way he’ll shut up the rebels, unite the country behind him and secure the legitimacy of his title. It’s cynical counsel, but similar advice has been effective many times throughout history and young Harry observes it to the letter. In his role as Henry V he proves to be a populist leader and a master of spin who can be ruthless to friend and enemy alike. He blackmails the church into sanctioning his invasion of a sovereign state, discards most of his old friends and executes at least one of them. His attack on Harfleur is a savage affair, as is his massacre of French prisoners at Agincourt. Finally, he bullies the Princess of France into a marriage with only the thinnest veneer of romance to it.
Shakespeare’s private opinion of his hero is difficult to gauge. Hal is a particularly Elizabethan figure, one of those young men like Malcolm or Fortinbras who comes out on top but remains somewhat enigmatic, difficult to fathom. Falstaff and Hotspur are more immediately engaging and may represent, between them, the last vestiges of an apocryphal ‘‘ merrie England’’, one of chivalry, carnival and folklore, the kind of world that produces a Don Quixote. Maybe Shakespeare saw the rigours of the Reformation and the Tudor dynasty as putting paid to all of that, and Hal’s killing off of both Hotspur and Falstaff is perhaps accompanied by a whiff of nostalgia. The new breed of statesmen — Burleigh, Walsingham, Bacon — were toughminded bureaucrats who would certainly side with a Hal against a Falstaff.
The Henry IV plays are much more about Shakespeare’s own times than about medieval England. To call any of his plays ‘‘ histories’’ is somewhat misleading because historical events and personages are so heavily fictionalised. To the Elizabethans, history was a mix of myth, legend, folklore, moralising and propaganda. Historical figures and events were drawn on to illustrate moral treatises, patterns of behaviour, warnings of consequences and character archetypes.
And no matter whether the plays were set in ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or medieval Europe, the actors dressed and spoke like Elizabethan Englishmen. But because the action was set in the distant past, comments about the monarchy, the church and the government could be made with some impunity. In Henry IV, at least half the characters are fictitious, and with the historical personages no attempt is made to construct real-life portraits. Instead they conform to types and are re-imagined to suit the purpose of the dramatist. We don’t know a great deal about the personal characteristics of the real-life Richard III, Cleopatra or Macbeth. Most of our knowledge of them comes to us via Shake- speare. This is why it is pointless to attempt to stage his plays ‘‘ in period’’ — they were never done that way and were never meant to be. Instead, they were meant to hold ‘‘ the mirror up to Nature, to show . . . the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’’.
That’s why I plan to set my production in England in 2013, but an England as seen through modern Australian eyes. What do we think about the monarchy, about mateship, about violence and gender relationships? About power? This has to be a Henry IV for us here and now, a mirror in which we can study many layers of ourselves and the world in which we live.
I’d be fascinated to know how much it will share in spirit with the earliest production of Henry IV in Australia. It took place on April 8, 1800, and most of the actors were ex-convicts. For the young colony’s gentry to witness these riffraff impersonating Britain’s nobility may have been entertaining or even galling. Certainly in Shakespeare’s own time, the Puritans were outraged at seeing ‘‘ pomping players’’ aping their betters. But, then, Henry IV is a play that is largely about chaos, about rebellion and anarchy; it is always threatening to run off the rails: the lusty spirits of Hotspur and Falstaff are difficult to contain. So maybe that early convict performance managed to tap into those spirits.
At its heart, Henry IV is also a play about acting. Falstaff is a born actor whose life is a series of turns and comic sketches. His greatest moment in the play is the scene in which he and Hal take turns in playing parodies of the king; they perform a little play within the play. Meanwhile, Hal himself is rehearsing his role as a manipulator of men’s fortunes. He is a deft mimic, as he demonstrates in his parody of Hotspur. On two occasions he slips into a disguise to discomfort Falstaff.
Then there is Ancient Pistol, one of Shakespeare’s glorious grotesques — a bragging drunkard who is forever rattling off demented parodies of Marlowe. His presence is a testament to the hothouse nature of the Elizabethan theatre.
On the bare stage of the Globe, Shakespeare created a sprawling, brawling map of Britain and peopled it with myriad characters from all walks of life. I think of Henry IV as Britain’s great national poem, the two plays together as the twin peaks of Shakespeare’s achievement. King Lear is more profound, Hamlet more mercurial, but Henry IV shows Shakespeare at his most realistic.
Bell Shakespeare’s Henry IV opens at the Canberra Theatre on February 26, then tours to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
Clockwise from far left, John Bell; Arky Michael, Bell and Sean O’Shea rehearse for
Henry IV; and Bell and Damien Ryan in rehearsal