Henry IV – Donmar – Review

As you’ll know by now I was extremely excited to go and see Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse and just over a week ago I got my act together to buy one of the £10 tickets that are released every Monday.

I arrived at the theatre with about 15 minutes to spare to be met by a ‘guard’ at the door who ushered me upstairs only to be then met by another ‘guard’ who pointed out my seat. Knowing the play was over two hours without an interval I searched around for a toilet only to be met with double doors stating DO NOT ENTER. Time was ticking so I went back to the prison guard and asked where the loos were only to be pointed towards the DO NOT ENTER double doors! Slightly unglamorous start to proceedings but needs must!!

I did wonder how the ushers must feel having to dress up in prison guard uniforms for every show and, I assume, take on the character of a prison official. Do they enjoy it? I know a few theatre bods who do ushering work to keep the cash-flow going and pondered how much they may have got into character before selling their programmes and showing hapless people like me where the toilets were!

Anyway back to the show – the Donmar space was suitably kitted out to look like your average women’s prison – think harsh lighting, bare brick walls, plastic seats, you get the picture. Just before the start of the show a ‘prison guard’ who I’m not sure was the stage manager, an usher, an actor or even Josie Rourke herself came on stage and informed us that the actress playing Hotspur had been in a serious accident and would have limited mobility so could we all be understanding. An image of someone being wheeled on in a full body cast flashed through my mind. After the ‘prison guard’ left the stage a loud buzzer went off and the cast entered in grey prison uniforms (sweatpants and sweatshirts) – Hotspur had broken her arm which didn’t look too limiting until later in the play when I realised she was meant to swing off a metal pole, do press ups and participate in a boxing match! Lots of respect to Jade Anouka for making it work without showing an ounce of pain.

So. To the show. I liked the concept of a play within a play, it was a good framing device and lent itself nicely to power struggle theme, particularly the female power struggles you must get in such institutions. It was also great to see female actors play some of Shakespeare’s most masculine roles and for it not to feel like a gimmick. Very quickly you forgot you were watching ‘women play men’ and found yourself engrossed in the action – much like when I’ve watched the all-male Propeller productions of Shakespeare.

Having seen Harriet Walter play Cleopatra and Beatrice previously it was a joy to see her as the formidable King Henry. The way she delivers her lines is very interesting, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. It’s something to do with her inflection and does not have the super ‘naturalistic’ feel to it that the other performers had which made her stand out even more. Her role was not as large as some of the others but when she was on stage you felt like you were watching a different level of acting and you certainly sensed she was the one with authority. I’ve read reviews that pondered what her character had been sent down for and I must admit I thought the same thing! Perhaps if Dame Harriet is reading this blog (ha!) maybe she’d like to disclose?

Another enjoyable performance came from Ashley McGuire as Falstaff – nicely proving that women can indeed play the fool and in some ways, bring even more layers to this particular role than I have seen some men do. You felt that this female Falstaff used humour to mask so many other issues and you only just scraped the surface of her many complexities. On top of that she was also genuinely funny and had a good rapport with the audience. Once again I was fascinated to know what her ‘prison’ character was in there for.

The only element I wasn’t too sure about was the almost Brechtian way the “real life” prison world interrupted the action, often at very key dramatic moments. Perhaps because it only happened a couple of times it came as a rather unwelcome surprise and it was also slightly awkward to see the actors pretending to corpse on stage and/or get distracted from the action – something all professional actors would rather die a horrible death than do mid-performance (ok I exaggerate but you get the picture). However, if this had been used as a device throughout and the audience not only got to know the characters of Henry IV but also the women of the prison it might have been a more welcome addition.

Apart from that slight niggle I really enjoyed the production, the ending in particular was very strong (I won’t give the details away) and it made me slightly wish there had been a few more powerful moments like this in the show. I imagine that a lot of work went into establishing the prisoners back stories and I left the show feeling like I would have liked to have had more of a sense of who these women were so as to further understand the impact performing this play must have had on them.

This is a production being performed at a premier London theatre where I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say a full house is guaranteed for every show. However, I really hope it paves the way for other all female productions – be it Shakespeare or otherwise – as it really does highlight the many different layers a female performer can bring to a role, and how the energy of an all female company can produce a truly engaging and different piece of theatre.

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