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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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


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

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