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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Henry IV (Bard in the Botanics)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

A condensed adaptation that keeps the heart in mind and the war out of sight

For many a Shakespeare enthusiast, it is standard practice to read a summary of the play before going into a performance. But doing so before Bard in the Botanics’ Henry IV raises questions. How will they squeeze two full-length plays into two hours? How can a cast of four possibly play this many roles? Will the skinny, runway-like space in Kibble Palace be big enough to encompass the world that is on display? But before you have the chance to get too concerned, director and adaptor Gordon Barr puts those worries to rest.

It is clear that with such a minimalist adaptation Barr’s approach is less about what to cut and more about what to keep. The focus is on the connections between characters, (Henry and Hotspur, Falstaff and Hal), rather than on the details of the story that prop them up. Arguably seeing these complex historical plays done this way makes them easier to understand, not less. But distilling the plays to their essentials does not have to mean losing flare or creativity, as evidenced by Carys Hobbs’ design. The set and costumes have sense of reluctant royalty to them; uncomfortable antique chairs, ill-fitting gowns, and framed photos of royals, all inherited with an obligation to preserve them with little room for individuality. Everywhere you look, you are reminded that the crown is a “troublesome bedfellow”.

But not quite as much of a nuisance as Alan Steele’s Falstaff. He is every inch the ageing, charismatic drunken scamp that you could hope for. People are mistaken in thinking that playing a drunk is the easiest character to perform, but Steele’s irresistible performance brings all the nuances of the character to the forefront. By his side, Sam Stopford seems to be fighting for attention as Hal, but as we spend more time with him we get to appreciate his internal conflict over love, freedom, and duty. We can see all the thought that has gone into his arc; far from going through the motions of a centuries-old play, it is as though we are seeing this story play out for the very first time.

Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

There’s a real tenderness between Hal and Falstaff, something grown not only from a father-like affection but from the fact that their forbidden friendship is an act of childish naughtiness in itself. When the tone turns more serious, Barr uses that geniality between them to create something to lose. It makes the ending, when Hal decides to put aside childish things, all the more heartbreaking. By comparison, the other half of the play is not quite as successful. This may be partially attributed to the fact that Finlay McLean, who plays Henry IV, was absent on the night I attended and the role was instead read (valiantly) by Stephen Clyde. But to some extent, it is also an unavoidable outcome of telling a grand narrative with only two actors and a condensed script. Without a concrete understanding of Shakespeare’s inaccurate history a newcomer to the play has to summarise the events of the performance as “war happens”. The details are just a touch too tedious to keep track of. But as the threads of a story come to a head, and what we are left with is a fight between a father and a son, it wraps up with such satisfaction that the confusing conflict is easily forgiven.

Although Bard in the Botanics' Henry IV never engulfs the audience in the world and the national politics of the play, they nevertheless create a performance that is involving, entertaining, and worth the price of admission based on Steel and Stopford’s performances alone. These are the kind of performances that will stay with you, that infect any future viewings of these plays. If ever I see any performances with Hal and Falstaff as characters, I will be grateful to mentally return to Steele and Stopford for reference. Four stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "i was particuarly impressed with the guy who stood in just to read." "It was excellent, and very sad at the end."

Henry IV will play at Kibble Palace until July 8th

Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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