Theatre review: Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy – Henry IV

Theatre review: Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy – Henry IV

Henry IV
Written by William Shakespeare

Donmar Warehouse, 2016
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Sophie Stanton, Jade Anouka, Martina Laird, Sheila Atim, Jackie Clune

Opus Arte DVD

This production of Henry IV, the second play in Phyllida Lloyd's Shakespeare Trilogy for the Donmar Warehouse, is very much in line with the principles and treatment of the earlier Julius Caesar (already available on DVD from Opus Arte). It features the same all-woman cast using professional and non-professional actors, some of them coming from a community prison rehabilitation background, which means that the action of Shakespeare's history play takes place on a set that resembles a women's prison yard.

You would think that the novelty of this setting might have worn off in the previous production of Julius Caesar, a play you is more obviously suited to the undercurrents of menace and subtle shifts of the balance of power between rival factions, but Lloyd's direction and the workshopped nature of the production means that there are plenty of new ideas contributing to make Henry IV even more entertaining and meaningful in this context.

What could Henry IV possibly have in common with a group of mixed-race women in an all-female prison setting, apart from some generalised observations on human nature? Well, there's that for a start, which is an important basis for the play, but there is also a more specific point to be made, one that Clare Dunne, who plays Hal, delivers in a brief introductory prologue to the play, observing that Henry IV is "a play about change and reformation", a play about second chances to someone who in Shakespearean terms has "a truant been to chivalry", an addict living a life of petty crime who is given the opportunity to redeem himself and cut himself off from his past.

Finding a suitable balance between the Shakespearean and the rather more down-to-earth, or rather finding a way to bring out the underlying humanistic character of Shakespeare in a way that is fresh and immediate is what Lloyd and the cast do best in this production, which condenses Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 down to a single 2 hour 11 minute play (80% Part 1 with 20% Part 2). The cuts and the earthy authenticity of the workshopped improvisations and interjections - momentarily breaking the third wall on occasion - give the audience the opportunity to relate directly to the underlying meaning of the play, which is about much more than the history of the English regal succession.

The Donmar's production, restaged in the round at King's Cross in 2016, where all the plays were performed in a single day for video recording, retains the prison yard setting and uses it extremely well for the purposes of the play. Like Julius Caesar, there's a gangland mentality to the power struggles, on the need to assert authority ruthlessly for fear of revealing the kind of weakness that ended the reign of the previous king, Richard II. The fresh young cast and the energetic staging, complete with pumping DJ music, is far more in keeping not just with the setting, but with the nature of the people involved here, much more so than you would get with the traditional delivery of verse from noted Shakespearean actors.

Not that we don't have some actors of note here. After her authoritative and revelatory performance as Caesar, Harriet Walter takes more of a backseat here in Henry IV as Bolingbroke, but still asserts an impressive presence over the play, as he/she should. In Henry IV however, the acting honours go Hal, Falstaff and Hotspur, and it's there that the fresh wild unpredictability of delivery really counts in favour of the nature of the play.

As she demonstrated in Julius Caesar, Clare Dunne can switch register impressively (even if the broad Dublin accent doesn't change), which is vital to the progression of Hal throughout the work, and Jade Anouka is perfect as the self-assured, fit and agile fighter Hotspur. What everyone wants from a Henry IV is a memorable Jack Falstaff, and you couldn't ask for a more entertainingly crafty, cowardly one that works perfectly in the prison context of the production than Sophie Stanton's. Playing a cockney Falstaff as a bit of a chancer is a touch of genius, much more authentic to his nature than that of a gone-to-seed noble. The performances are outstanding, right across the remarkably diverse cast, inventive and purposeful, not just playing it for amusement or novelty.

Under Lloyd's direction there's a sense of a real ensemble working together to raise the play, to do it justice, to keep it meaningful, comprehensible and contemporary, far from the usual Shakespearean declamation, but still keep it essentially Shakespeare. The wide range of accents - Irish, Welsh, cockney, Caribbean, street - also help ground the work. It's not just about relaying Shakespeare's words meaningfully, but expressing the underlying human sentiments. Henry IV is never just a play about the history of the English crown, but about the people and the motivations that make history, the recognisable behaviours that drive them to act as they do, or might have done.

There's consequently far more realism in the fighting in the context of a prison yard, the boxing matches developing into dirty brawls where knives are slipped into hands, working far more effectively than the usual staged sword fights with their regal and military trappings that can obscure the humanity - or lack of humanity - in such situations. But the same attention is applied to the earthy and sometimes aggressive humour, to the poignancy of lives that are affected by the sense of duty and honour that result in such struggles, and Phyllida Lloyd's production gets to the heart of that brilliantly.

The second of Phyllida Lloyd's all-female trilogy of Shakespeare productions at the Donmar (alongside Julius Caesar and The Tempest), the filmed version of Henry IV is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is in NTSC format and region-free for worldwide distribution and compatibility, and it looks and sounds impressive, the image clear and well-lit, with dynamic Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 sound options. There are a good selection of extra features that cover the intentions and approach to the play with contributions from Phyllida Lloyd and the actors. There's also a full-length director's commentary that gives good insight into the choices made here. The booklet has an introduction by Phyllida Lloyd, a synopsis and a look at the background of the prison initiative behind the production of these plays.

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