Review: Henry IV Part I (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

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Silvan Rus as Prince Henry (Hal) & Liliana Macarone as King Henry. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble return to the Roma Street Parkland to perform one of Shakespeare’s histories, although it is hardly the history of England you’ll find in books – Henry IV Part I kept the audience engaged all night with pranks, war, drinking, sword fights, rousing speeches, and more.

Despite the title, much of the action in Henry IV Part I takes part adjacent to the king – as the recently-won crown begins to sit uneasily on Henry’s head, his son revels in London’s seediest pubs with a host of questionable characters and his enemies and former allies scheme against him.

Henry IV Part I is the second play, chronologically, in the ‘Henriad’, a series of Shakespeare’s plays that span the reigns of English kings from Richard II to Richard III (which logically seems like only one change of monarch but is actually five kings and eight plays!). Henry IV Part I begins with Hotspur (Henry Percy, son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland)’s victory over Scottish forces at the Battle of Homildon Hill in late 1402 and ends with the defeat of the rebels at Shrewsbury in mid-1403.

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Angus Thorburn as Hotspur and Silvan Rus as Prince Hal. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Young Henry Percy “Hotspur” has defeated the Scottish forces at Homildon Hill but refuses the King most of the prisoners taken and demands that the King ransom his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, from the dreaded Welshman Owen Glendower. King Henry refuses, dismisses Hotspur’s uncle from court, and demands that Hotspur and his father deliver the prisoners. The Percys, who helped Henry take the throne from Richard and are angered by his perceived ingratitude, seek an alliance with Mortimer, Glendower, the Archbishop of York, and the much-feared Scot, Douglas, to overthrow the King.

Meanwhile, King Henry is dealing with a more personal rebellion – his son, Prince Hal, is spending all his time drinking and keeping the company of petty criminals, earning scorn from the court and straining his relationship with his father, who suggests the valorous Hotspur may be a more worthy heir than his carousing son. However, Hal claims to the audience, this is all part of a larger scheme to impress the public with his “glittering reformation” when he does renounce his wild ways. As both rebellions come to a head and civil war looms, Henry must face his enemies, Hotspur must finish what he has begun, and Prince Hal must redeem himself in the eyes of his father and his future kingdom. Meanwhile, Hal’s friend Sir John Falstaff, begrudgingly drafted into the King’s army alongside Hal and a rag-tag bunch of fellow barflies, contemplates honour and whether it is worth dying for.

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Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Despite a large cast of characters and a multitude of intertwining subplots, the play was expertly staged and the audience never felt unsure of characters or place despite minimalist set design by Bradley Chapman. Costuming by Gabby Carbon made the characters clear and memorable, especially important in a production where actors were playing multiple roles, and lighting design by Steven Tibbits helped indicate changes of place and added to the atmosphere of each scene.

Directed by QSE Core Ensemble Member Rebecca Murphy, the play made full use of the performance space, from battles and marches in the amphitheatre to hiding below stage level. Being seated on the amphitheatre stage, with actors moving around and between them, only made the experience more engrossing for the audience.

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Ellen Hardisty as Lady Kate Percy and Angus Thorburn as Hotspur. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Liliana Macarone was a steely-eyed King Henry, and Silvan Rus brought both comedy and emotion to the complex role of Prince Hal. QSE’s Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini’s wonderfully funny performance as Sir John Falstaff was a highlight – he played to perfection the witty and worldly rogue who is prone to pub philosophy and exaggerated stories of his adventures.

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Dudley Powell as the pub hostess. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Dudley Powell displayed great versatility, swinging between his roles as the exasperated pub hostess and the wild-eyed Scottish Earl of Douglas with apparent ease. Garry Condeseres, Matthew Filkins, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn, Matt Gaffney, Ellen Hardisty, Frances Marrington, and John Siggers all skilfully played a variety of roles, from knights to drunks and many in between.

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Angus Thorburn as Hotspur. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Angus Thorburn gave an outstanding and consistently high-energy performance as Hotspur, passionate and erratic as he moved impatiently across the stage, gesticulating wildly in a way that began comically but took on a heavier threat as the work progressed. The tension between Hotspur, his uncle (Earl of Worcester, played by Matthew Filkins) and his father (Earl of Northumberland, played by Matt Gaffney) as they plotted their rebellion was fantastic.

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John Siggers as Bardolph, Matthew Filkins as Gadshill, and Frances Marrington as Peto. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s mastery of the language was clear, flowing naturally and full of meaning. Although I had never seen or read this play before, the story was easy to follow, partly because of the cast’s ease with the language and partly because of the way action and story were crafted through movement. If you’re intimidated by the language of Shakespeare, this is the perfect performance to begin with.

Before the show and during the interval, the cast did not disappear behind the stage but played live music as a band (‘Skimble-skamble Stuff’), performing original songs composed by three of its stars: Silvan Rus, Liliana Macarone, and Rob Pensalfini.

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The multi-talented cast of Henry IV Part I perform as Skimble-skamble Stuff. Photographed by Benjamin Prindable.

Henry IV Part I is a work of contrasts – the contrast of Prince Hal’s rebellion with the real threat of rebels brewing in the North; between the physical comedy of a fake robbery and the violent clash of war; and, most notably, the contrast between the impatient Hotspur and the cool-headed Price Hal. Henry IV Part I is truly an epic tale of honour, rivalry, rebellion, and redemption, but is equally full of humour and drama – it really does have something for everyone!

Henry IV Part I will play at the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre from 22 August – 8 September. For ticketing and further information, visit the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble website.

  • Q&A: Wednesday 28 August 2019 – 20 min Question and Answer session after the show
  • Relaxed Performance: Saturday 31 August 2019, 2:00pm Matinée – designed to welcome those who will benefit from a more relaxed performance environment. Click here for more information.

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