Henry IV Part 1

William Shakespeare
East Village Arts Club

Lee Burnitt (Henry) Credit: Ian Murren

Producing any one of Shakespeare’s history plays is always a serious undertaking for any company under any circumstances. The sheer density of these texts, not to mention the requirement for a cast of thousands, means that none but the brave tend to take them on.

In producing parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV on consecutive evenings, Liverpool’s Purplecoat theatre company is nothing if not an ambitious bunch of players—more so when one considers the company’s scarcity of funds and lack of any place to call home. Don’t ask me how they do it. They just do.

Summer saw the company in the mellifluous ambience of Liverpool’s famous ‘bombed out’ church; Winter sees them a few hundred metres down the road inside the always beguiling interior of the East Village Arts Club—a venue more used to rocking the night away to the sound of Daft Punk et al. than it is witnessing witticisms of the Falstaffian variety.

Purplecoat’s version of Henry IV takes place in a modern landscape of civil unrest. Making full use of the Arts Club’s thrust stage, this Henry IV rightly emphasises the fear and paranoia that often underpin power. Lee Burnitt's Henry is a man on the edge, living in constant fear of usurpation.

Indeed, as a study of political machinations, the resonance of Henry IV is immense. Working out just who is pulling whose strings and for what reasons is just one of many delights offered up by the history plays. For audiences who may not appreciate their many nuances, the history plays however can present a real challenge.

As ever with Purplecoat, though, it’s the company’s trademark exuberance which carries this production forward. Performances are, as one would expect, energetic and not without charm. Company regular Tasha Ryan always catches the eye, her Prince Hal being no exception. Meanwhile, Olivia Howell's Falstaff is an interesting departure from the norm.

For a first night, this production has much to commend it. More so when one considers the tight constraints under which the company works. First night nerves aside, performers soon warm to their task. For the most, part the comedy of Falstaff, Peto and co tempers the intensity of the Henry/Percy feuding. Job done.

Once over the initial nerves, it’s full steam ahead. The longer this production goes on, the more the cast grow in confidence. Yes it does help if you are accustomed to Purplecoat’s unique style, but it’s by no means essential. And mostly it works. Though I’d certainly keep populist politicking out of any future production. (Hint: not everybody in the audience is a lefty).

Overall, this production plays to all the company’s strengths. Raw and original, I can safely say that even if you live to be a 100, you’ll never see a Henry IV quite like this one.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick

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