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Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

Strong performances carry Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown: Harriet Walter gives a quiet, considered performance as the ageing Henry IVHelen Maybanks

It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed since Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. Harriet Walter’s stricken face as the play ended is still burningly fresh in the memory as we return to the theatre for Henry IV – Part II of a planned trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays.

Incarcerating us once again in a women’s prison, can the power of Lloyd’s conceit survive a second outing?

Yes and no. While Julius Caesar rarely broke its theatrical frame, allowing the audience to dissolve the two worlds of Rome and the prison into one emotional arc, here Lloyd seems more anxious to rupture than foster this unity. “We agreed we weren’t going to do this fucking bit,” rails Mistress Quickly after Falstaff insults her in their quarrel; “This isn’t your scene,” shouts Henry IV when two inmates mock his climactic encounter with Hal. The result is both less psychologically sustained and less immersive – oddly so, given the transformation of the Donmar itself into a “Secure Facility” for the duration, with audience marched into the auditorium single-file, supervised by uniformed guards.

Jade Anouka flings her Hotspur at us with joyous ferocity

But in other respects Lloyd’s prison-setting holds up well. A tale of nationhood, identity and friendship gains particular poignancy in the mouths of the disenfranchised, the grey-tracksuited masses lost in the margins of the history books. There’s a pleasant friction to hearing the insults of the battlefield and tavern – “like a sick a girl”; “a woman’s mood”; “you are a woman, go” – in the mouths of this muscular, assertive troupe of women, each claiming so much more than just linguistic territory in their dramatic invasion into one of Shakespeare’s most masculine plays.

Restless and rangy, striking her words like a percussionist, Jade Anouka flings her Hotspur at us with joyous ferocity. In her delivery, Shakespeare becomes the artful contemporary language of the street – its martial posturing at once absolutely faithful and gloriously reinvented. She faces off against Clare Dunne’s Hal – a world away from the actress’s Portia. Laddish and vulnerable, Dunne is the central point in a text that conflates both Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II (though dominated by the former), allowing us to follow the young prince from hooligan to monarch in a continuous two-hour arc

There’s a lot of material condensed here, but the overriding sense is not one of loss but of pace, focus. Only in tracing Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) and Hal’s relationship do we miss the comic scenes of Part II, the casual back-and-forth intimacy that is so brutally cut short by the prince’s “I know thee not, old man” speech. Usually it guarantees a tear or two, but here, following so quickly on from Hal’s epiphany at his father’s deathbed, it feels too inevitable to be shocking.

Watching over all is Harriet Walter’s Henry IV – part monarch, part director, an autocrat determined to have things right, and her own way. Weary and cynical, the kingly mask scarcely drops, save for a silent moment of softening, shifting, as Hal steps between her and Hotspur on the battlefield. It’s the tiniest of gestures, the quickest of expressions, but its weight here is immeasurable. It’s a quiet performance that allows McGuire’s Falstaff space to spread itself – crude and generous – over the production.

Supporting cast are no less strong. Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy is impossibly tender, Cynthia Erivo’s boyish Poins quivers with energy, while Jackie Clune offers a welcome comedy turn as Welsh warrior Glendower.

Soundtracked to music ranging from Zadok the Priest and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (a slightly self-conscious addition to the climactic, slow-motion battle against the rebels) to Glasvegas’s disaffected, indie ballad Daddy’s Gone, the production has a pulse more varying, if no less distinctive, than Julius Caesar’s clamorous rock. Lloyd works hard to manage mood, and if at times she overworks, the production is no less effective for showing this effort.

Henry IV left me satisfied, but Julius Caesar left me in pieces. Take away the shock of the new and can Lloyd's concept regain the gut-punching impact of its first outing? We'll have to wait for Part III to find out.

  • Henry IV is at Donmar Warehouse until 29 November, 2014
Lloyd works hard to manage mood; if at times she overworks, the production is no less effective for showing this effort


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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