Performing Shakespeare’s plays presents any theatre maker with numerous obstacles: the language must be relatable, without losing the flavour of the original; the setting, if modern, must be unpretentious; and if traditional must still be meaningful to a modern audience. Ultimately, MUSC’s production of Henry IV Part 1, directed by James Christenson, manages to overcome these hurdles, and present a relevant modern adaption of Shakespeare’s classic play.
Primarily, the cast and crew are to be commended on doing what even the top theatre companies struggle with – recreating Shakespeare in a way that is coherent and enjoyable without losing the content of the original script. The comedy was excellent, with timing and delivery consistently strong from all actors. This was particularly the case for Declan Mulcahy, whose performance of Falstaff was excellent in the connections it made with the audience and the other characters. A special mention goes to Nathaniel Pemberton, whose rendition of Hotspur was particularly engaging in its exuberance and commitment to character. The delivery in general was outstanding; the pairing of the original Shakespearean language with a common-English delivery made the action easy to follow – a difficult task for any Shakespeare adaptation.
The lighting was solid, with some highlights including the ominous, flashing red light during the battle scene, and the effective use of a single torchlight early in act one. The sound effects, however, were less effective. The use of an abrasive, electronic soundscape failed to capture the show’s essence and seemed largely out of place at times. Furthermore, its harshness and pitch was such that it was actually painful to listen to, and detracted from the action, rather than adding to it. Similarly, the choice to use cap guns and the actor’s screams as the only sound effects during the climactic battle scene was underwhelming. The effect was one of children playing shooting games, rather than a Shakespearean battle.
Ultimately, I was left with one burning question at the end of the play: what was the significance of the choice to reverse the sexes of King Henry and Hal? What it did prove to me was that it simply doesn’t matter – the play ran just as smoothly and was just as interesting with the female heroines. However, I was left wanting something more. It would have been great to see some more engagement with the gender politics touched on in the play, or a deeper exploration of the mother/daughter relationship between Henry and Hal. This may have been difficult to do, considering the already three-hour running time of the unabridged script, but I am of the opinion that such a bold choice demands further exploration.
Modern adaptions of Shakespeare are by no means a new idea. Yet, there’s something about this production that still manages to be relevant and modern beyond the costume and props. Overall, a three-hour running time could have made for tedious viewing, but MUSC has done a fantastic job in creating an entertaining and engaging adaptation.
MUSC’s production of Henry IV.i will run in the Guild Theatre from the 28th April-7th May