As every mood or odd behaviour is given a name (diagnosis) these days and a pill to match, there must surely be something coming down the line for the panic and guilt of theatre (reviewers) onliners who just cannot keep up with the number of shows worth substantial comment. There are about six shows I’ve seen of late I would like to write about but will never get to. And a pair of big ones in the writing pipeline: Angels In America at Belvoir which I have seen and is very good; and The Maids at the STC which I saw last night. Also good in a mightily different way.
But to my purpose. No matter what burdens and excitements an online reviewer might face, his or her world simply has to stop to make way for the very rare moments when greatness is witnessed. Especially on this site, which concentrates on value (in the long and short term) rather than a quick thumbs up or thumbs formula. Consequently, I have a duty to and the honour of acknowledging John Bell’s extraordinary rendition of Falstaff in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of Henry IV. It’s a condensed version of Part One and Part Two (separate plays) and for modern audiences it’s a good idea and in this version works well. The production as a whole is good and lively in the way one might expect of a production John Bell also directs, with support in detail from Sport For Jove’s Damian Ryan. I’ve rarely loved Bell’s directing as much as his best performances. And when it comes to acting he has two speeds: 1. respectable and 2. mind-blowingly brilliant. Of the latter that I have seen that immediately come to mind are his original Arturo Ui, his Cyrano, his Kosky Lear, Astrov in Mellor’s Uncle Vanya in the dying days of Nimrod, Prospero on Armfield’s Tempest. Oh and a gloomy, abrupt, daunting Sebryakov in Tamas Ascher’s recent STC production of Uncle Vanya, with its all-star cast and overseas tour.
This Falstaff has received little fanfare – maybe I have not been paying attention. In the fair world it should be the talk of the town. In earlier decades it would have been.. Even I only heard about this career high point in time to catch the last performance. It is a dark broody, funny exasperating, physically ruined but mentally superior, perfectly articulated Falstaff. You only have to look at a few photos of other attempts to pick up the Santa-Clause belly-wobbling ho-ho jollity favoured by tradition. Bell knows his Shakespeare to his bones: not just the works themselves, but he has a deep intuitive feel for the sensibility, intent, mood and mind of the greatest ever of playwrights.
Falstaff is traditionally played as a bloated piece of fun – and that’s just too simplistic. He is vital to our understanding of Hal’s journey from boy to man, prince to king. Bell sets himself apart from above-mentioned theatre-lite cliche. He knows that to truly pull off the study of Hal’s shift from youthful self-indulgence to sobriety and respect (now king) for the the traditions he previously mocked, Shakespeare relies on Falstaff crucially as mirror and a foil. Casting out of court his great fun-buddy, cohort, and father substitute, Henry V does so resoundingly in very few words at the coronation, is one of the most important scenes in he play. (Images above include some from productions of Verdi’s opera and famous paintings, but they all reinforce the point - that Falstaff is too often portrayed as Santa Claus).
In this version, Falstaff’s downfall is as cutting as politics gets. And we feel its brutality because of the very complex, heartfelt, beloved and flawed Falstaff Bell has created. Pathos, bathos, hilarity, dignity, as gross as it is elegantly drawn.
As is the case of many a Bell Shakespeare production, and these days I dont see them all, the casting is uneven – and it shows in the performances. I don’t like being unkind to young actors who may yet blossom, but Matthew Moore barely makes a mark as Hal. It’s good but lacking in largesse. So sadly, much of what Bell delivers falls flat due to lack of reception. That’s a pity and may be why more has not been said/written about Bell’s performance. I don’t mean to pick on Moore, it’s not his fault. But you have to ask where is the fire in thee belly. Who can forget Joel Edgerton in the part for Bell Shakespeare (both Henry IV plays in full)? Most of the younger actors in this production produce underwhelming results, More senior actors meet standards commensurate with their age and experience. And as a whole, the evening is pretty good.
This isn’t a full review, it’s just a chance taken to put on the record a performance by John Bell at his greatest. I feel grateful to have seen it. and it will stay with me among other treasure in my small chest of great theatre encounters.
Meanwhile here’s to the great master John Bell. A big tick for bringing to life yet another of theatre-writing’s great characters!
For more on John Bell’s acting career go to this essay by Louis Nowra published in The Monthly in 2011 – it’s a very discerning evaluation.