run until 29 November
Director Phyllida Lloyd returns to the setting of a female prison as she continues her trilogy of reworked Shakespeares at the Donmar Warehouse. Having missed out on the 2012 Julius Caesar, I was intrigued to see how the concept, which sounds full of promise, would play out on the stage. It’s true that there are some fantastic cast members on top form here, and moments of brilliance shine, yet there are also some niggles that detract from the production’s successes.
The prison setting goes beyond the confines of the stage itself: as visitors to the slammer, we are escorted through the back door of the Donmar into the ‘prison’ itself, complete with guards for ushers and official signs plastering the walls. The usual seating is replaced by plastic chairs (if you’re downstairs, that is – I wasn’t, which probably makes the first time ever that the cheap seats proved to be the comfiest) and the lighting is cold and harsh. This austere atmosphere precedes a pared down Henry IV, whizzing through an amalgamation of Parts I and II in a couple of hours. The cuts are hefty, but it suits the backdrop of this performance well as the piece is stripped back to its core elements: fathers and sons, kings and fools, people rather than dynasties. In casting women only in arguably Shakespeare’s most masculine of plays (and that’s saying something), Lloyd has removed the focus on gender, even while it dominates the headlines about the show. While the women playing originally female parts retain their femininity, those playing men are not overtly feminine or masculine – by keeping these roles largely androgynous, the heart of the production is humanity, and human relationships, regardless of sex or gender.
One of the main attractions for me in seeing the show is Dame Harriet Walter, and her Henry is a fine performance that shows why she is one of our generation’s most respected actresses. Her presence is commanding even when silent on stage, and her delivery precise yet dynamic as she emanates both the gravitas and anxiety of the dying king. It is not a showy performance, but it is a deeply compelling one. On the other end of the scale, the rebel Hotspur is played as an energetic firecracker by the impressive Jade Anouka (who on this occasion was continuing in this very physical role with a broken finger, sustained in a previous performance); while the relationship with Lady Percy feels somewhat contrived (although Sharon Rooney’s scenes alone are beautifully done), Anouka’s passion sparks across the stage elsewhere and she provides the production with much of its pace and fire.
Of course, the most fascinating and most oft dwelt upon relationship in this play is that of Falstaff and Prince Hal, here presented as a desperately tragic criminal and trendy young troublemaker respectively. It is interesting to read about the cast’s thinking behind their characterisation, imagining Ashley McGuire (Falstaff) as a life prisoner and Clare Dunne (Hal) as a younger inmate shortly up for parole. McGuire and Dunne give strong performances to portray the shifting relationship throughout – which of course, in this shortened version, comes ever swifter – and the final, infamous “I know thee not, old man” is about as powerful as you could get it. Its consequences bring the production within the play (if you see what I mean) to a tumultuous end, as pent-up emotion both in the history and in the prison itself comes pouring out.
However, the Falstaff thread of the story is when Lloyd’s direction seems to let down her cast somewhat, and where the discords of the setting and the original text appear problematic rather than intriguing or insightful. The use of props such as balloons and Toblerones makes logical sense in the context, but for me brings an odd form of comedy that distracts from, rather than adds to, the strength of the piece. Similarly, the intrusions of the world of the prison into the realm of the play rarely add anything (with the exception of the final rejection) and instead throw things off course: it is more successful when the action is concentrated and focused, and we are aware enough of the prison setting and the possible external situations of these characters without it being so pronounced.
This is an unfortunately resonant flaw in what otherwise could be a much more powerful production; if the staging did not break our focus unnecessarily, I’m sure I would have been more affected by its poignancy and impressed by its intensity. Yet there is still much to enjoy and ponder in this retelling, and this extremely talented cast is certainly worth a visit in this week’s final performances.