Directed by John Galea, of The Puzzle Collective, Superhal is described as a 'reimagining' of the Henriad plays – Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. An ambitious task by any stretch of the imagination.
This is not the first time The Puzzle Collective has given the bard the pop culture treatment, with the success of 2012's The Tempest – Steampunked. This time around, Galea has transformed the story of Price Hal's rise to kingship into a Marvel-esque sci-fi, fantasy tale of a superhero's emergence.
Think of Baz Luhrmann's trail blazing film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and its modern appeal. Galea's sophisticated interpretation of 'Henry' is not unlike this and has great potential, should it nail its execution and find the right audience during its debut season at NIDA.
I will admit that as a fan of the original Henry Parts 1 & 2, I am in two minds about this play but I think there are many reasons why Superhal should appeal to a new generation of theatre-goers, beyond diehard Shakespearian fans.
The positioning of the play in an alternative England, ruled by super humans, is inspired, capitalising on the archetypal themes of good versus evil and the power struggle between a father and son, not unlike universal themes used to such memorable effect in Star Wars. And the staging, though simple, conjures up a legendary world of god-like beings, with special effects and costuming used to skilful effect to create a world inspired by pop cultural references to Mad Max, Ironman, Superman, Heroes and malevolent fairy tale icons like Maleficent.
The casting of the play is intelligent, bringing together a group of talented actors, lead by Richard Hilliar as the charismatic Hal, John Michael Burdon as the reckless but comedic Falstaff, and the ambitious Hotspur, intensely portrayed by Kieran Foster .
Most welcome, however, is the freedom with which the adaptation plays with gender. What are predominantly male casts in the original plays, offer equal opportunity in this retelling, with strong females taking on the male roles of Poins (played by the engaging Emily Elise) and Worcester (bewitchingly portrayed by Jane Bergeron). Even Shakespeare's original female characters are transformed from bit parts to central roles alongside their male counterparts, with Queen Isabel, (played by Emily Weare), taking on most of King Charles VI's lines from Henry V.
So, what, might you ask are my reservations about Superhal, a play with so much potential?
In its current form, Superhal may still resonate best with Shakespearean devotees, used to elongated and dense formats. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Galea's adaptation is highly ambitious; he has essentially condensed three Shakespearian plays into one three-hour session, with Henry 1 & 2 before the intermission and Henry V on the other.
I wonder if the impact of the brilliantly original superhero origin story might be compromised by the continuation of Hal's foray into kingship, which is a stand-alone story in itself? And though used to experimental forms of art, how open might a younger audience be to a play that seems to begin again after intermission?
My feeling is that the Marvel franchise generation may be more receptive to coming back in the future for the next instalment of Hal's superhero's saga. It might even be a great opportunity for Galea to create a series of plays, with a prequel in the form of Richard II, following Henry V.
It certainly has the potential for greatness but Superhal may benefit from refining its scope and I, for one, look forward to seeing where The Puzzle Collective might take this new Australian adaptation in the future.