Hot dogs are not avant-garde

Wednesday, May 15, 1991

Henry IV Part I
By William Shakespeare
Staged by Wayne Harrison, Philip Parsons and John Senczuk
With Andrew McFarlane, Marcus Graham, Angelo D'Angelo
Sydney Theatre Company
The Wharf, Pier 4
Reviewed by Angela Matheson

In an attempt to simulate the conditions of the Elizabethan stage, the Sydney Theatre Company has staged 1 Henry IV in a draughty concrete hall with hard wooden benches. The hope is that audiences will find fresh insight. I got a numb bum and was bored to death.

Wayne Harrison's grasp of the realities of Elizabethan drama is purely literal. The audience walks around eating hot dogs during the performance just as the Elizabethans chewed on walnuts; the actors adopt the Elizabethan method of direct address to the audience. But the complex political issues involved in re-enacting a 16th century play, concerned with the transition from autocracy to capitalism, in late 20th century Sydney is beyond Harrison.

Key issues are ignored. The play's interrogation of the material circumstances which form and manipulate power relations goes ungrasped. Instead, a passé humanist interpretation of humankind as isolated, uncertain, yet somehow heroic is projected by this STC production as an innovative idea.

Falstaff, a murderer and a machiavel, is wheeled on stage as a misunderstood, lovable old rascal. And Prince Hal reminded me of a bad north shore boy who redeems himself by leaving surfing to return to his father's stockbroking firm. This is seen as appropriate. In truth, this production is blighted by the Harrison's identification with the points of view of the authority figures within the play.

Innovative theatre abandoned a liberal-humanist interpretation of Shakespeare long ago. Surely it is recognising that Shakespeare was writing about characters in process at a time of great social upheaval that can make it new and relevant for a 20th century audience. The fun of eating hot dogs wears thin after three hours on a wooden bench watching a flat production.

Any innovation in this production is purely cosmetic. Committed to the bourgeois status quo, director Wayne Harrison has nothing new to say and no capacity to offer anything different. His attempt to "reinvent" exciting new Shakespeare is sad. A corpse dressed in glittering finery looks grand from a distance. But don't get too close.

The STC's lack of commitment to innovative theatre is reflected in both its choice of plays and casting. 1 Henry IV is a male play. This production has three male directors, and out of a cast of 13, two females hold parts, both minor.

The production was momentarily redeemed by its talented actors, who — unhindered by the dead hands of the directors — put together an exhilarating, raunchy jig at the end.

The STC is a rich theatre company at a time when most theatres are going broke. Its commitment to the establishment ensures its funding and "prestige". But may those of us who are eatre ask that the STC stop posing as avant-garde?

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