Henry IV: Donmar at King’s Cross

This is a well established production so hardly needs a review, least of all from me, but here goes anyway. Harriet Walter’s performance as the titular King was astonishing: graceful, subtle and slightly knowing. Her command of Shakespeare’s language was superb, and orders of magnitude beyond the rest of the cast. Often this didn’t matter: the ruthless editing of the two parts into a single play meant many more complicated speeches were cut, and robust physical theatricality carried many other parts.

Jade Anouka’s Hospur made every scene she was in sparkle (even her dead body had a commanding presence!). Clare Dunne’s performance as Prince Hal seemed to get stronger throughout the evening. Shakespeare’s comparisons to his earlier play Richard II survived the editing and gave some needed depth to the death-bed scene between father and son in the final act. Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff left me a bit cold. The tavern scene where she and Prince Hal imitate Henry IV (and his likely reaction to Hal’s disportations) was filled with the camaraderie and bouyant wit I expected from Falstaff, but at other times, particularly in the scenes with the lesser actors, she seemed less full of her role.

There was an attempt, not entirely successful I think, to give Prince Hal’s final rejection of Falstaff extra weight by use of the prison setting. This framing also helps to excuse the many clunky props, such as a toy dog, or the assorted lollipops the actors sucked on intermittently, or the fake swords that were unrecognisable as weapons of any sort. Perhaps the point was to emphasise the juvenile nature of much of the early goings on? But to pick a tough comparison, in Lilies, the prison setting works brilliantly to emphasise the key themes: here it sometimes seemed unhelpful. Maybe it works better in the companion plays, Julius Ceasar and The Tempest? That said, there was effective use of the theatre space (the audience sits on all sides—the atmosphere was frequently intense), and some nice symbolism, for example, when Hotspur is slain on top of the prison yard’s basketball court’s centre circle, a map of England and Wales spray-painted around him.

The all female cast helped to bring out the gender themes, for example the generally contemptuous treatment of Mistress Quickly, and the marriage between Lady Percy (played by Sheila Atim, showing great promise) and Hotspur. The programme has an interesting article by Charlotte Higgins on the 2:1 problem: of the 10 theatres that received the most money from the Arts Council, women account for about 1/3 of the board members, artistic directors and actors. Higgins makes the interesting point that the colossal gender balance in Shakespeare (of 981 roles, 826 are men, 155 are women) shapes audience expectations of casts, and has knock-on effects for careers throughout British theatre.

Overall: an enjoyable evening, but certainly not one for the purists.


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