Henry IV was crowned in 1399 and ruled at a tumultuous time in English history. Despite successfully deposing Richard II and a brief lull in the wars with France, there was already a significant threat to his new reign. Henry IV was forced into a new war in response to marauding Scots and a powerful alliance of Welsh rebels led by the mighty Owain Glyndŵr and Northern English forces under the command of The Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy and his son Henry “Hotspur”.
After watching Bronzehead Theatre’s outstanding “Richard II” last year I was really excited to see their latest Shakespearian instalment. I was treated to an intimate and creative representation of Henry IV, parts one AND two, which had been considerably dissected, sieved and condensed into one play.
As per usual, Director Tom Straszewski demonstrated his knowledge of the text and his ability to intricately dissect a play; this was represented by his well-chosen selection of material. Straszewski has also devised creative ways to allow smooth character transitions for the actors between their many roles.
The play’s primary setting is a tavern, presided over by the formidable Mistress Quickly and frequented by the capacious Sir John Falstaff. I was a fan of the clever concept for the play’s structure; for, as the play progresses, the actors within the tavern scene use the idea of comically mimicking their other characters in jest, as a way of progressing into the next scene. This meant that the actors could change scenes without having to leave the stage. They also utilized minor costume changes well as part of the production so that there was no break in the flow of the play until the designated interval. Once a particular scene was completed, the characters broke their charade and returned to their tavern in good humour at each other’s impressions.
All the actors deserve great credit for the sheer number of different characters that they had to play. It is no easy feat to bring such life and definition to so many different roles but they had obviously worked hard as a cast to cut clear identities for each of their characters.
Mark Burghagen (Prince Hal; Hotspur) is a great classical actor and performs with a commanding presence on stage. He played his two roles vigorously yet subtlety, bringing many layers of emotion to his characters. Kate-Lois Elliott (Poins; Worcester; Lady Percy; Pistol; Warwick) gave a huge contribution to the project with her many roles, which she played with great diversity and confidence. Patricia Jones (Mistress Quickly; Shallow; Glyndŵr; Chief Justice) was a charismatic and hugely entertaining character actor. Patricia clearly relished the audience interaction scene where we, sorry members of the populace (audience), were conscripted for military duties.
Mick Liversidge (Falstaff; Henry IV) performed his Falstaff with gusto and his Henry IV with reverence. Mick was also great with the audience interaction segments. Nicola O’Keeffe (Doll Tearsheet; Francis; Mortimer; Lancaster) played her roles with sass and great comedy timing. She also acted well in the background of some of the scenes where she was not directly involved in dialogue as much as other characters.
The Music for the production was arranged by the play’s Musical Director, John Robin Morgan. The folk songs that John had chosen were ideal for the venue and the audience. Musical credits must also go to the cast. Mark Burghagen on tin whistle, Kate-Lois Elliott on guitar and Irish bouzouki, Patricia Jones on box drum/cajon and Nicola O’Keeffe on Cornet. The singing was excellent throughout and all the cast can take merit for their contributions.
Production Manager Sandrine Enryd Carlsson had done a great job sourcing vibrant props and the smooth running of the show is testament to her hard work. Most of the venues during the Bronzehead Henry IV tour are Pubs (such as my viewing at The Eagle and Child, High Petergate) and so the tavern theme for the core setting of the play suits well. The surprise but, not unwelcome, audience interaction was great for that sort of intimate environment where audiences are physically so close to the actors.
I would highly recommend catching this play at one of the many venues that are included in the tour. One of the joys of theatre is the variety of venues and cast sizes, a show can be performed pretty much anywhere. As an audience member it is good to step down from the larger staged productions and catch raw, intimate theatre for a change. Seeing Bronzehead’s Henry IV is like a fresh breeze reminding one of the magic of tavern storytelling, music and community of old that has long since disappeared but dare I say, has begun to capture the imaginations of people once again; particularly in York.
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