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Theatre in Review: Henry IV (St. Ann's Warehouse)

Jade Anouka. Photo: Pavel Antonov

In her staging of Henry IV, the director, Phyllida Lloyd, empowers her all-female cast even as she leaves them oddly shackled. This is the second time the director has a deployed a company of women in all the roles of a Shakespeare play; the previous effort was Julius Caesar, also seen at St. Ann's. (They come from London's Donmar Warehouse.) Some may think this a controversial approach, but when you have talents of the caliber of Harriet Walter and some of her costars, it hardly requires justification. Hearing Walter tease the frissons of late-night anxiety from King Henry's "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" speech, handling the verse with magnificent lucidity, is a positive pleasure. But Lloyd has chosen the same conceit for both productions: In this case, we are seeing Henry IV -- really, a trimmed version of Part I with a couple of scenes from Part II tacked on at the end -- as presented by the inmates of a women's prison. One wonders if she was influenced by Caesar Must Die, the fascinating documentary by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, about an all-male prison Shakespeare troupe, but here, the framing device sometimes acts as a straitjacket on these skilled players.

Thus, before we are allowed to take our seats, prison guards appear in the lobby and ask the crowd to step aside as the players, handcuffed together, are led into the auditorium. This stunt opening releases an odor of hokum that is never fully dispelled. Taking the stage, the cast carries a set of kindergarten furniture, a toy stove/kitchen set, a stuffed dog, and various other props that seem expressly chosen for their inappropriateness. "Look!" they seem to cry out, "We're putting on a show!" There are various interpolations into the text. Karen Dunbar, who plays Bardolph, speaks with a pronounced burr; when her character has a moment of pique, Falstaff cracks, "She's Scottish. She's upset that they didn't get independence." At one point, Falstaff takes someone from the audience, forcing the poor patron to take the stage, sitting on a chair geared for a three-year-old and perusing a copy of The National Enquirer. In a tiff with the tavern hostess Dame Quickly, Falstaff yells at her, "Sex with you is like throwing a sausage up a street." The other performers surround her, hurling insults, and just as one of them invokes the C word, the actress playing Dame Quickly runs off in tears. The lights come up and the actors bicker among themselves about the inclusion of such words in the dialogue.

None of this does a thing to illuminate Henry IV, and indeed it often gets in the way of some very fine work. As mentioned above, Walter's Henry is a complex, commanding figure, implacable in the face of his many enemies, yet wearily aware that his hold on the throne has been achieved through questionable means. His fury at his son, Hal, for throwing away his youth while carousing with Falstaff, is powerful and deeply felt. This is a performance that can stand up to any of the Henrys I have seen. There are also striking contributions from Jackie Clune, whose Westmoreland lays out the case against Henry with the controlled rage of a prosecuting attorney arguing a capital case; Susan Wokoma is amusing as Poins, fierce as the Earl of Douglas, and, the performance I attended, she stepped into a third role, offering a heartbreaking study in powerlessness and wifely dismay as Lady Percy. If Jade Anouka's Hotspur rushes her speeches a bit, she is nevertheless a formidably warlike figure. Zainab Hasan offers well-spoken accounts of several roles, beginning with Dame Quickly.

Oddly, this Henry IV is weakest in its central relationship. Sophie Stanton's Falstaff earns her share of laughs, but she doesn't capture half of the character's richness, his hilarious self-indulgence mixed with melancholy. Indeed her finest moment comes when, impersonating Henry reading the riot act to Hal, she adopts a posh, great-lady accent and minces about the stage. There's something equally lacking in the Prince Hal of Clare Dunne. Partly because of the women's prison framework, the performances are aggressive, oratorical, and generally lacking in nuance; thus, we never see any real affection between Hal and Falstaff, nor is there any sense that Hal in clinging to his older friend is both seeking a permissive father figure and punishing his own parent. (Their role-play game, alluded to above, in which they take turns playing Henry lecturing Hal, lacks the chilling adumbration of Hal's future betrayal of Falstaff that I have seen in other productions.) Dunne's Hal gains in authority and sense of purpose in the second half, but she never approaches the character's complex psychology, his sense of grievance and hunger for parental approval. And Hal's ultimate betrayal of his great friend, Falstaff, is surprisingly pro forma, minus a profound sense of loss.

It's all the more frustrating because when two of the actors are allowed to play an extended scene without gimmicks, as when Henry confronts Hal or when Worcester faces off against Henry, the production is alive with the characters' clashing ambitions. Too often, we're noticing Lloyd's staging ideas rather than the narrative they are meant to clarify. To the extent that they carry out the prison motif, Bunny Christie and Ellen Nabarro (scenery), Deborah Andrews (costumes), James Farncombe (lighting), and Tom Gibbons (sound) have performed professionally and sometimes inventively. Farncombe's lighting fluidly reshapes the playing area and Gibbons' sound effects in the war scenes, which are staged using kickboxing techniques, unsettlingly suggest the heat of battle.

As a result, this Henry IV is both tantalizing and something of a missed opportunity. It would be welcomes to see Lloyd try another Shakespeare work, this time in a similarly stripped-down, but gimmick-free, approach. Then we could concentrate on the pleasure of seeing fine actresses attack roles that convention has so long denied them. -- David Barbour

(12 November 2015)

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