The Melbourne University Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV.i was more of an experience than a production. Every aspect of the performance, from its powerful cast to its genius use of set design, allowed the audience to suspend their disbelief and enter a world where notions of honour and loyalty were challenged.
For someone who hadn’t previously read the play, and can often struggle keeping up with the many relationships and unpredictable developments of Shakespeare’s plots (not to mention the language), this production was very accessible. Without drifting from the original language of the play, MUSC’s Henry IV.i was directed and acted in such a way that the meaning of every line was brought out through precise action and flourish in speech. Every word was given the weight and the clarity it needed, without ever seeming forced or out of place.
There was such a strong sense of ensemble within the cast that not a single beat was missed. There was no weak link in the cast, with every actor giving a strong, dynamic performance. No matter how minor a role, there was never an inclination to overact and a perfect synergy was maintained on stage at all times. Energy and commitment drew the audience in and propelled the piece through its three and a half hour run time. Each actor was so aware of the others that it really felt like they were reacting rather than acting, which is certainly an impressive feat given the difficulty of memorising a Shakespearean script.
This emphasis on the action, which can often fall behind language in Shakespeare, gave the performance its quality of complete believability, and brought it to life. This choice was definitely a credit to the flawless direction of James Christensen. Every character was so fully formed, driven by emotion and sure of themselves that it was impossible to separate yourself as an audience from the world they had so wonderfully created. Nathaniel Pemberton’s Hotspur exemplified this passion and complete commitment. The way Pemberton broke the fourth wall only furthered the sense of us watching real events, rather than a performance. He riled us up, making the audience part of his rebellion.
The use of space in the Guild Theatre was commendable. The simplistic set design, matched with the use of lightning and sound, managed to smoothly and effectively switch the stage between multiple settings throughout the play, proving that less really is more. So much was insinuated rather than told with the setting, which heightened the dramatic tension and dark, sinister undertones of the play. For example, the battle scene used space, sound, and lighting in such a way that it felt there were soldiers by the thousands, when there was only a cast of 16.
MUSC’s Henry IV.i was a modern and punchy take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. The tight ensemble propelled the piece with their energy and clever manipulation of space, while the direction teased out the traditional themes while exploring new ones, such as gender.