John Bell, left and designer Damien Ryan.
'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,'' runs the famous line from Henry IV, Part 2. But David Whitney doesn't seem to have such problems. The actor stepped into the title role of Bell Shakespeare's Henry 4 two weeks into the five-week rehearsal period when the originally cast Sean Taylor withdrew for personal reasons. The rest of the principals remain unchanged and the production will have its Australian premiere in Canberra on February 23.
The company's founder John Bell is co-directing his adaptation of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 condensing the two plays into one three-hour show to concentrate on the relationships of the main characters.
''It's a choice you have to make,'' Bell says. ''You can't do part one or part two on its own and it's not cost-effective to do the two of them over two evenings for a company like ours.''
John Bell, left, as Falstaff and Matthew Moore as Prince Hal in Henry 4. Photo: Pierre Toussaint
Economics also dictated a brief rehearsal period.
''We've got five weeks to get it on.''
And he's ''delighted'' to be premiering in Canberra in the Playhouse, which he says is ''the finest theatre in the country. It's the perfect size and shape … any bigger and you lose intimacy, any smaller and it's not feasible.''
John Bell will play Falstaff in Henry 4. Photo: Pierre Touissant
Whitney joined the production having just returned from working in a musical in China but isn't fazed.
''Three weeks to rehearse all of the scenes is luxury,'' he says.
Once he had to go on as Don John in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Much Ado About Nothing at short notice when the original actor became ill and at his first performance worked with script in hand.
''It took me a day or two to learn it.''
And in Bell Shakespeare's As You Like It a couple of years ago he went on as the Duke with a couple of days' notice. He foresees no problem with Henry 4 (this adaptation uses the Arabic rather than Roman numeral).
''Three weeks - I think I'll be fine.''
This will be his eighth Bell Shakespeare production since 1999 so he feels he's among friends, which also helps.
The script is a re-edited version of the one the company used in 1998 but this version isn't a mere rehash: the cast is new and the production design and costumes by Stephen Curtis have been inspired, in part, by the 2011 London riots. It is, Bell says, an Australian take on English history and society with some local flavour, too.
But Bell, keen to retain the universality of Shakespeare's work, isn't emphasising the politics in any direct way - ''I don't want it to be like watching 7.30.''
In Henry 4, Henry Bolingbroke (Whitney) has usurped the throne of his cousin Richard II to assume the title King Henry IV. But his teenage son, Prince Hal (Matthew Moore) prefers to spend his time in pubs with petty criminals and prostitutes, particularly Falstaff (John Bell). But when rebel forces threaten the new monarch, Hal renounces his dissolute friends and rejoins his father.
The production's co-director is Damien Ryan, who's been engaged because Bell is, for the first time, playing the role of Falstaff.
''I never thought I'd do it,'' Bell says, citing his age (Falstaff is in his 60s; Bell is 72) and size as factors. But with a costume to make his relatively lean figure resemble that of the portly Falstaff and confidence in himself - ''I'm in good enough shape to take it on'' - he is portraying the tragicomic character.
''Falstaff won't act his age; he won't grow up,'' Bell says. And he pays a heavy price.
Former Canberran Matthew Moore is playing the king's son, Prince Henry - nicknamed Hal or Harry.
Born in Frankston, Victoria, Moore came to Canberra when he was two and went to school at St Francis Xavier College - where he played Fat Sam in the musical Bugsy Malone (''it required quite a bit of padding, as will John Bell as Falstaff'') and Daramalan College where he was in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita.
After a couple of years doing an arts degree in Wagga Wagga, he was accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 1996 and in 1998 he moved to Sydney, where he has been based ever since.
He's been back to Canberra many times, often touring with Bell Shakespeare: Henry 4 is his 10th production with the company that helped inspire him.
''Growing up I was always deeply interested in Shakespeare … Bell Shakespeare was one of the few companies that toured to Canberra.''
He says the work with Bell has been among the highlights of his career. His first role with the company was Caliban in The Tempest (2001) and his other Bell productions have included A Servant of Two Masters, Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet.
He saw Bell's previous Henry IV in 1998 as well as Orson Welles's 1966 film Chimes at Midnight, another adaptation of the material, but didn't know the plays intimately. But he knew a good role when he saw it.
''When John offered me the role I said yes straight away.''
Moore says, ''The great thing about this edit of both parts of Henry IV is that you get the full journey of Hal.''
The prince is caught between two older father figures: his real father, Henry, a distant and cold man who acquired the throne through violence; and the more jovial surrogate father of the ruffian Falstaff, who's a lot more fun, but with whom his relationship has started to sour.
''It's a wonderful role, you get to explore all of that,'' Moore says.
''He feels he doesn't fit in either world; he's caught between the two.''
Moore says he doesn't see any benefit of doing Henry 4 in period dress.
''This is a play for all time,'' he says, adding all the ideas it explores - such as jealousy, honour and warmongering - are still with us today and rather than present it as a museum piece, the company wants to modernise the look to highlight its contemporary relevance.
Designer Stephen Curtis says, ''John and I liked the idea that the kingdom was in a complete state of disorder. The stage is turned upside down, figuratively.''
Curtis says that as the relationship between Hal and Falstaff had already begun to deteriorate when the play begins, there wasn't much of a sense of the fun in their relationship, so the ''pre-show'' is a scene in which their gang hangs out together drinking and having fun but the situation gets rowdier and more violent as it unfolds, presaging what is to come.
To help the audience keep track of the characters and the social and political critique Bell and Curtis envisaged them costumed as ''teams'', from the grunge fashion of Falstaff and his gang to the business suits of the court, a nod to politicians and to modern-day corporate dynasties such as the Packers and the Murdochs.
The working relationship between Bell and Curtis goes back many years.
''John gave me my first full-scale production following NIDA, The Venetian Twins more than 30 years ago.''
Since then, they've collaborated many times, with Curtis working on both costumes and sets rather than specialising in one or the other.
''I think design is part of direction and direction is part of the design. I see my role as a designer as visual dramaturg for the production, designing what is needed to enhance the ideas in the play from the director's concept.''
He and Bell started working together on Henry 4 six months ago.
Curtis says Henry IV and Falstaff, are ''each a version of the other'', both flawed, with Hal in the middle seeking a true father figure. In the beginning, the young man dressed in grunge style like Falstaff, but as the play progresses he adopts the clothing of Henry IV, providing a visual correlation to his emotional journey and his ultimate transformation into Henry V. But that's another story - and another play.
Henry 4 is on at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, from February 23 to March 9. Phone 6275 2700 or see canberraticketing.com.au.