A CurtainUp Review
Like the Donmar's Julius Caesar in 2013, director Phyllida Lloyd sets this Henry IV in a women's prison and has the current ensemble playing the women inmates who are having a go at performing Henry IV. It gives a cold mordant feel to the goings on, not to mention an androgynous look to the performers dressed in prison sweats (costumes by Deborah Andrews).
Lloyd's play-within-a-play premise does demand you really stretch your suspension of disbelief, as her conceit is thrust upon the audience with no foregrounding. But isn't that a prerequisite to all theatrical ventures, that one must take an imaginative leap—and simply trust in the director's vision? Fortunately, it does pay off here even hough there are a few loose theatrical strands in this avante-garde piece, this 2-hour version.
This production gives the lion's share of attention to Henry IV Part 1 and touches only on the key scenes of Part 2 (think Hal's coronation and rejection of Falstaff scene and Henry IV's "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" speech). Yes, Lloyd severely prunes Part 2, but her judicious editing doesn't mar the flow—or the integrity--of the two history plays. In short, she traces Hal's transformation from supposed wastrel to patriot-hero and then seamlessly shifts into his political apprenticeship and coronation as the ideal (and legitimate) king.
Beyond her regendering of Shakespeare's dramatic characters (except for Hostess and Lady Percy), Lloyd tosses in other bold, contemporary touches as well. There's a nod to Miss Piggy and a gutsy rendering of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" by Sophie Stanton's Falstaff with a Courtney accent. While this stage business drew immediate laughs from the audience, I'm not so sure that Dunne's Hal wearing a shirt with the logo "Cesc Fabregas" (he's an up-and coming pro football player for Chelsea) connects as well with American theatergoers. Even so, it does make this production au courant and authentically British.
What American audiences are sure to recognize is the smart timing of this piece. It's no accident that Lloyd has brought her Henry IV to New York as a presidential campaign is ratcheting up with Hilary Clinton widely viewed as, if not a shoo-in to the Oval Office, the leading democratic candidate on the hustings. And whether you are pro or con for Hilary as our next president, this current all-female production of Henry IV seems to hint that women must open their own doors to make their voices heard.
The ensemble acting here is best described as fast and furious. There's plenty of rough-and-tumble action generated by the 16-member ensemble, and no punches are pulled. Harriet Walters, in the titular role, is the real standout. Her Henry IV is a psychologically-layered character who is ever-plagued by the guilt of forcibly seizing the crown from Richard II. Clare Dunne, as Hal, is top notch. Dunne has the range to go from being the prodigal son to the patriot to the pragmatic (and calculating) King Henry V. And I would be remiss not to mention Stanton, who is just right as Falstaff. Stanton plays the part with much gusto and a touch of pathos, particularly when Hal banishes his old tavern friend who no longer fits into his world.
The creative team work in rough harmony here. Bunny Christie (with Ellen Nabarro) concocts a set that simulates a prison gym that is furnished with bench rests, mini- playground slides for toddlers, and a bean bag chair. At first blush, it might seem that Christie's set has no rhyme or reason to it. But one need only recall that Hal for much of the play is a diamond in the rough and this set serves as a concrete expression of his wild tavern days and as a training ground for his political future. James Farncombe's harsh lighting gives definition to the no-fuss set and is most effective in the final scene when it casts an eerie shadow around Falstaff as Hal cruelly rejects him. Kate Waters, who choreographed the fighting, does a first-rate job at making all the physical wrestling, sparring, and workouts on stage look convincing.
The Donmar's all-female Henry IV may leave you with a few questions. But when push comes to shove, its dramatic strengths outweigh its flaws.