'Superhal' presented by The Puzzle Collective takes English history and Shakespeare and turns them on their heads.
So what would Shakespeare characters do in a superhero story?! And how would they cope in the modern world?
Writer and Director John Galea talks 'Superhal' in more detail.
Who are The Puzzle Collective?
We are a group of artists who believe that independent theatre should be high quality, imaginative and inspirational. We have a bit of a thing for bringing 'the classics' to life in new ways.
When you say "superhero re-imagining"…What does that entail?
Well, I suppose in some ways English history and comic book superheroes might seem far removed from each other, but after recognising the superhero potential of Hal's character, we looked into the other characters in the story and found that each of them had an inherent archetype we could connect to a superhero trope. With Hal, he was called the Lion of England and there's a lot of talk about his armour, so we took our cue from characters like Black Panther, Wolverine and Iron Man. Hotspur, the leader of the rebellion against the king, is always described as being 'on fire' and 'hot-headed', so we created a 'human torch' inspired fire-bender. And so on – Falstaff is a washed up Hulk-like character, the Dark Knight Exeter is inspired by Batman, etc. But also the superhero setting takes it out of literal history and lets us do things like switch genders for Poins, the King of France, Westmorland (our Wonder Woman style character), and rearrange things in the text slightly to match the genre markers of superhero stories.
Where did the idea to turn this into a superhero story come from?
From seeing John Bell's version of 'Henry IV' in 2013. It struck me then that 'Henry IV' was an origin story – it's a coming-of-age background for the hero English audiences knew as Henry V, with some interesting twists to the usual superhero origin story, e.g. Hal's mentor, Falstaff, is not a reliable father figure. I suppose it's a superhero origin story because I'm an old school sci-fi comic book nerd, and that's a world I feel like I can play in.
Why do you think it's a good idea to contextualise 'Henriad' for modern audiences?
I feel that we've never been more in danger of losing our cultural heritage. We're fed a diet of celebrity gossip and 20-sec YouTube clips to keep us distracted and docile. Now's the time to see what hip hop has to say about Chaucer, or how Plautus could lighten up Donald Trump. And yes, what superheroes would do in a Shakespeare history play. If even one comic book lover or cosplayer is exposed to Shakespeare or one elitist classical theatre-goer decides to give the Marvel MCU a look because of this show, we've bridged that gap and, I hope, helped enrich both of those worlds.
You've been quoted as saying "I've always thought that Shakespeare had huge pop culture potential"… Why do you think this?
Well because in Shakespeare's time, the stage was the dominant pop culture format, and his works were the blockbusters of his age. I suppose Baz Luhrmann showed us what was possible back in 1996 with his 'Romeo + Juliet'. That was a hugely successful film in the pop culture space, it transcended the traditional Shakespearean audience because he used the visual and the emotive elements to translate the language. You can't underestimate how difficult a barrier the language can be for those who are unfamiliar with it. Because it's archaic you get a false elitism – it wasn't difficult for the audiences Shakespeare was writing for, that's just a product of time. As directors and performers it's our job to take the audience through that beautiful but sometimes obscure language to the clear gem of thought that lies within each of Shakespeare's works.
Is this show relatable? If so, how?
Totally! It's about a son trying to impress his father in all the wrong ways, even after that father is dead and buried. It's about who you can trust to have your back when the chips are down. It's also about how misogyny hurts men just as much as it does women.
How do you compare 'Superhal' with your past work?
There's a thread that connects them, I suppose – we've done a postmodern psychoanalytical mash-up of 'Alice in Wonderland', and a Steampunk version of 'The Tempest'; I suppose that each time we approach a classic text, we try to find something imaginative and inspirational from pop culture that will suit the story we are trying to tell and add an extra dimension, maybe even a lesson or two for the audience and the culture.
What have you learned directing this performance?
I've learned so much. And not just about Shakespeare or directing or marketing or even CAD drawings for sets and props – I've learned a lot about trust, including learning how to trust myself better. Having faith in what you are doing, but being flexible enough to change with circumstances – there is a parallel there definitely with Hal's story.
What can audiences expect from 'Superhal'?
They can expect a bit of adventure, a bit of spectacle, some great dramatic moments, some good laughs and fantastic superhero fight; but above all, they can expect to follow the story of a man in extraordinary circumstances who has to find out who he really is.