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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HENRY IV
at the Donmar

PRISON DRAMA
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Ann Ogbomo and Harriet Walter/ Ph: Helen Maybanks

No, this is not Pirandello’s play, but a conflation – compression, more like – of Shakespeare’s two magnificent Henry IV plays currently in the repertoire of the Royal Shakespeare Company but presented here as an all-female prison drama by Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd over two swift, uninterrupted hours.

It follows the same pattern as Lloyd’s all-female version of Julius Caesar at the same address two years ago (later seen at St Ann’s Warehouse), with Harriet Walter following her brilliant Brutus with an equally well-spoken, harassed old Henry; but the concept is not quite so fit, as both parts of Henry IV amount to a glorious, if slightly embittered, national pageant, and this production is all about internecine, not political, authority.

And there’s something distinctly unpleasant and “Prisoner: Cell Block H” about a bull-dyke Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) in a white vest and flat cap abusing a pale shadow of a Mistress Quickly (Zainib Hasan) with the non-Shakespearean insult of “sex with her is like throwing a sausage up a street.” This defiantly fat Falstaff loses it, too, at the end, when the rejection scene boils over into an unseemly brawl with the prison officers.

Whereas there was a logical impulse behind a covey of crew-cut cons doing a play about political upheaval and suicide, there seems no reason for them to be meditating on father/son relationships or rebellious nobles. The rebels, though, are vividly done by three fierce actors (Ann OgbomoCynthia Erivo, so outstanding last year in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and Shiloh Coke) working out in the gym. For the Battle of Shrewsbury, the cast adopts Harriet Walter masks and blood-red boxing gloves.

This comes 90 minutes into the show, leaving about 15 minutes for Part Two, which is represented only by the deathbed stand-off between Henry and Hal – the playing here between Walter and Clare Dunne’s impassioned Irish-accented succeeding prince (eventually exchanging her Chelsea football colours for a crown made of soft drink cans) is a highlight – and the big rejection scene: no other London street, or recruitment in Gloucestershire, scenes at all.

The air of the show is mostly dank and rancid. Even the farce of the Gadshill robbery, which Falstaff turns into a self-serving comedy turn, is subsumed in the tavern inquest into a vulgar, louche karaoke session to the Beatles’ “Money.” But it would be wrong to suggest the show is not fun in parts. There are a couple of company chorales and set pieces that are genuinely muscular and moving, and Jade Anouka’s cockatoo-coiffed Hotspur is fiercely energetic.

Debutant Sharon Rooney’s enormous Lady Percy, the opposite of the usual simpering, sex-starved stay-at-home, is terrifyingly good, and it’s nice to see former comedienne and mother of triplets Jackie Clune getting down and dirty in a neat doubling of Westmoreland and Glendower. But you do start to wonder, why are they all so sullen and miserable – it’s being in prison that gets you down, I suppose – and what are they gaining from doing this play?

The Donmar has been transformed into an institutional non-comfort zone – the padded benches replaced with hard plastic seats – and the audience corralled across the road in a dimly lit cocktail bar before being frog-marched up Earlham Street by officers holding clipboards and megaphones. It’s all a bit childish, really, but it does make a stark contrast with the traditional RSC version coming soon to the Barbican, and Walter’s monarch, even in truncated form, is a supple match for the original, intriguing interpretation by Jasper Britton in Gregory Doran’s production at Stratford-upon-Avon.

 


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