John Bell did not look his usual lean self on stage. The co-artistic director of Bell Shakespeare donned a fat suit, a bikie outfit and make-up to transform himself into the roguish Sir John Falstaff in the company's new production of Henry 4, which premiered at the Playhouse on Tuesday night.
''I'm losing weight,'' Bell said. ''It's a very physical role … I'm a bit ragged by the end of the evening.''
Bell, who co-directed the production with Damien Ryan, also adapted William Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts One and Two into a single play. With sets and costumes designed by Stephen Curtis evoking post-London-riots Britain, the play creates a world on the brink of anarchy. A Union Jack painted on hundreds of milk crates creates a sense of fragility and fragmentation.
Former Canberran Matthew Moore plays the rebellious Prince Hal, who has to find his own way back to the royal court.
Moore said: ''As the play starts, we see how he's completely rejected the court … we really see a young man off the rails, drinking too much, hanging out with Falstaff, committing petty crimes.''
Hal sees in Falstaff a ''ruffian father'', compared to his own cold father, King Henry IV (David Whitney) who has stolen the throne of Richard II. But the relationship is already starting to sour as the play begins and Hal finds himself not fitting into either world.
Moore said: ''Falstaff is using Hal, he assumes he will become an earl or duke when Hal becomes king.''
The actor said he was inspired, in part, by stories of Prince Harry's often-reported wild behaviour in playing the role.
Whitney assumed the role of Henry IV two weeks into the five-week rehearsal period when the previously cast actor had to withdraw for personal reasons.
''It didn't seem that rushed, because the play is so long and a lot of it I'm not in,'' he said. He had also worked with the other actors, including Bell and Moore, before.
''It's just a wonderful play, one of Shakespeare's greats, I think. I've done nine or 10 of them and I'd put this among the great plays.''
He said it ranges from great humour - ''people are surprised by how funny the play is'' - to deep melancholy as it explores the relationships among the three main characters and how Hal eventually becomes Henry V.
■ Henry 4 is on at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre until March 9. Tickets $33-$79.For performance information and bookings visit canberratheatrecentre.com.au