The Donmar is transformed into a woman’s prison for this production of Shakespeare’s popular Henry IV parts I & II and reunites Phyllida Lloyd (director) and Harriett Walter (Henry IV) for another of their all-female works. The theatre’s entrance is boarded up and guarded by sullen security personnel who direct the audience to a waiting room (with bar and creature comforts) across the road. Just before the start of the play the audience is escorted chain-gang style to the theatre’s cold, bleak back entrance where they are unceremoniously sent to their seats by prison guards.
The two plays are combined into one to make a dramatic and immensely entertaining epic about family, duty and country. Together they tell a powerful story of a country struggling with regime change, the crimes of the old guard eventually being swept away by a younger generation that is keen to shake off the past and has its sight firmly set on the future. The play opens with the king angrily rebuking Hotspur (son of the Earl of Northumberland) for refusing to hand over the prisoners he took in battle against the Scots. In fact Henry IV is not enjoying his reign, rebellion is stirring and his throne is threatened by some of the very nobles who placed him there. His son and heir, Hal (Clare Dunne), brings shame and ridicule on the family name with his hedonistic lifestyle in the slums of Eastcheap with Sir John Falstaff and other characters of ill-repute. Throughout the play the King struggles with Falstaff for the soul of Prince Hal but when rebellion erupts it brings Prince Hal back to his father’s side. The Prince proves himself a valiant leader and courageous in the battle, eventually quashing two key uprisings and securing his family’s place on the throne. His actions gain him the respect of his father and he finally turns his back on Falstaff to take up this rightful place on the throne when his father dies.
Jade Anouka is a formable Hotspur, headstrong and reckless; Clare Dunne is wily as the streetwise Prince Hal, whose transformation from coke snorting playboy to the countries rightful leader is brilliant. Ashley McGuire is wonderfully comic as Falstaff and theatre’s new comer Sharon Rooney is worth a mention for her sensitive portrayal of Lady Percy. This is Shakespeare as you have never seen it before and in its modernisation it seems to become more accessible, more exciting and more intelligible. The rawness of the performances bring the language alive; Shakespeare’s prose become electric and its brilliance and beauty seem amplified on the stark grey prison set. The critics are definitely divided on this one, as they were over Phyllida Lloyd’s previous all-female production of Julius Cesar. Decide for yourself, it is a great play and worth going to see what all the fuss is about.
Notes and Photo Credits: Image is from the Donmar Warehouse site, click on the theatre links for more information.