Theatre relies on enterprise, ideas and action. The concept of interrogating some of Shakespeare’s’ History plays via the metal of super heroes – the Marvel comics etc – is an intriguing idea. The fact that this troupe of largely young actors/designers/costumers/directors gives us their vision of this potential fusion, often with energy and verve, is a tribute to the enterprising thrust that lurks in the theatrical venture. But action often requires purpose: in this production the convincing idea can be hard to find.
The ambition of this troupe is monstrous, giving us great slabs of Henry IV and Henry V across one long night (7.30 p.m. to at least 10.45 p.m.) with a mixture of élan, occasional stark clarity, but too often embroiled in speech making that fails to roll with the heightened language; deadpan humour that strikes flint followed by stretches of mumbled grandeur; remarkable agility followed by stiff awkward gait; some real stage beauty via handsome actors and delicate acting – all hung with youth’s rightful disdain of helping the audience to comprehend the complicated machinations of Shakespeare’s mangled history.
So a mash would not be too alliterative an epithet for this rollercoaster evening of performing styles. That the small audience enjoyed so much of the inherent humour in the play was testament to the verve with which young people can often tell the outlines of a funny story.
Equally, there was much confusion and straining for effect by voices that find the dramatic range of Shakespeare imaginings difficult to encompass. But we thank them for trying. Theatre needs their ambition and energy, as their pecking at the play helped deconstruct some of its wilful bluff and arrogance, giving us some delightful stretches of believable characters always on the cusp of upheaval.
The basic concept framework was enticing – Marvel meets Shakespeare - but its execution was far from sealing the deal. We never experienced, immersively, “an alternative England ruled by beings with super human powers”.
The production needed greater risk taking with the concept, making it almost aggressively ‘now’ with a throbbing, thumping sound track that imitated the clash of struggling hulks, all dazzling lighting and oversize actions – some filmic qualities. These audio-visual qualities might have inspired a more active suspension of disbelief and leant some credence to the super hero framework. On the large scape of this theatre, the sense of claustrophobia that war instils was near impossible to activate.
The ideas were there but dormant. Are super heroes real people? Does the mask of war hide an automaton or a fractured human being? The characters in the Henry plays are already intensely human so how to animate the thrill of automatic recklessness and barbaric responsiveness beyond humanity – querulous thoughts that might then animate some connection between comic book and play. Does an effective King, a killing King, cut himself off from humanity?
Instead, this production gave us a respectable stab at the Henry plays, by a group of young enthusiastic players. No harm in that, even if it often felt like young children playing at fancy dress, capes a fluttering, weapons in hand. Such a ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ concept might have sparked some useful intellectual grit, but not on this occasion.
The acting was intermittently good.
It would seem somewhat wilful to have a Falstaff without largesse: “so surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane”. Here was a relatively thin bovver boy, puppy fat not withstanding; a characterisation that ensured the rascal and weasel, all sweat and sack, was given great prominence by John Michael Burden – without hinting at the life enhancing nature of Sir John. Nor was the tragedy of this character deeply probed. The crushing weight of his rejection by Hal went by without too much discomfort for all concerned - including the audience. His gallows humour at the death of Hotspur was, however, nicely rendered with cheering effect on Hal and us: “if a lie may do thee grace, I’ll gild it with the happiest terms”. This was a patchy but interesting assumption that missed some of the elegiac tone of “go thy ways, old Jack; die when thou wilt”.
Richard Hilliar played Hal – as Prince and King. He made a handsome prince. This was a Hal stronger in love than in warring. His assumption was most endearing and wistful in his marriage proposal scene with the fair Katherine.
The low-key nature of his St Crispin’s day speech was suggestively interesting, as though seeking a calmer more thoughtful incarnation of this famous speech, but the voice and body did not instil any great shaft of steel into the English troops on the fateful moment before battle. It behoved a gentle King, but not a thunderingly mighty ruler – let alone a super hero. Not much kingship - “Mighty and to be fear'd” - was on display throughout this production.
The battle scenes were wanly portrayed, with sound and lighting unable to lift their energetic execution beyond the winsome gymnastics of young boys at play. So the fight choreography was well executed but did not envelop us in the dark factional power plays that are unleashed across the drama – the life and death matter that “rebellion in this land shall lose his sway”, the terror of one land, two Harrys. If this be war, we were often in no-man’s land.
Emily Weare stood out with her assumptions of both Mistress Quickly and the French Queen, Isabel. Her diction was the strongest on stage and her ability to ride the Shakespearean cadences with meaning and wit was a highlight of this production. Her arresting costume as Queen instantiated both regal bearing and artful reckoning of England’s warlike stamina.
Amanda Maple-Brown was fantastically dressed and effective as both Prologue and Montjoy. The costume designs by Clare McCutheon were vivid and wilfully eclectic.
Some good humorous exchanges between the Pistol (Jasper Garner-Gore), Bardolph (Ciaran O’Riordan) and Falstaff raised some rippling laughter across the audience. The Act II, Scene IV recitation of the robbery of the robbers was very nicely done: “come, let’s hear Jack what trick has thou now?”
There were topsy-turvy threads throughout the production – balance and contrast were weak. The French King’s words were turned over to his Queen – and quite effectively delivered – but on the English side we had a father King without gravitas. David Attrill mimed the part of Henry 1V with some skill, but his voice would deliver no kingly power, no regal attitude – no shattering exhalation of life: “my father has gone wild into his grave”.
The role of Westmorland went for nothing – even the wonder woman, Rule Britannia costume could offer no help.
The Hotspur (Kieran Foster) delivered some physical menace – but his diction was not clear and his petulance more gravely etched than his profound anger and ambition.
Meghann Martini as Katherine was suitably pert and humorous in her exchanges with Alice about the English and French equivalences that apply to aspects of the human body. She was totally in tune with the delicious romance that Hal unfolds via his marriage proposal.
Despite these highlights, idea and action are not sustained in this production by John Galea. The use of force fields as weapons of control was intermittent – as was the whoosh of fire and several sedate explosive interruptions. Pantomime can be powerful when its means and sincerity evoke clearly articulated emotions. The message here was intermittent and the effects did not highlight a convincing narrative. Theatre sometimes requires more than youthful energy.
THEPUZZLECOLLECTIVE, NIDA Parade Theatre, Kensington, Sydney, Thursday 9th March 2017.