Henry IV: Theater review by David Cote
I don’t mind gimmick Shakespeare; it’s hard to imagine what non-gimmick Shakespeare even is. They’re really old plays riddled with obsolete language, they’ve been revived to death and every director is desperate to make them seem relevant and universal—but not in a dead-white-male sort of way (unless you’re Trevor Nunn). So two years ago, when formidable director Phyllida Lloyd brought her Julius Caesar–in-a-women’s-prison to St. Ann’s Warehouse, I went with it. The rigidly hierarchical cellblock vibe enhanced the Roman tragedy’s sense of honor, guilt and fate; the gender of the actors—including fearless Harriet Walter, Jenny Jules and Cush Jumbo—was soon immaterial. Lloyd’s semi-immersive staging (audiences escorted to their seats by grim-faced guards) gave the night a sizzle of potential danger. Now she’s back at the sleeker and bigger St. Ann’s with a condensed Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, also enacted by British actors playing incarcerated women. So the question is: Once you’ve enjoyed a gimmick once, do you want to see it again?
Yes and no. On the whole, Julius Caesar generated more heat, where the aura of surveillance and control—not to mention the pecking order within groups—fed into the morally tainted power struggles of Brutus, Cassius and Caesar. Here, the sprawling and seriocomic tale of guilt-burdened usurper Henry IV (Walter, again), his calculating wastrel son Hal (Clare Dunne) and the gluttonous knight Sir John Falstaff (Sophie Stanton) comes across as more diffuse and tonally awkward. At times, it’s unclear whether we’re watching a well-acted, accessible Henry IV that just happens to be set in a prison, or an unstable, rough-hewn version being acted by female prisoners—speaking their speeches in thick Cockney, Irish, Scottish and Spanish accents. Some blurring and slippage is surely intentional: A scene in which Falstaff crudely mocks tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Zainab Hasan) breaks into a “real” fight. There’s a back story that Lloyd and her actors know, but we don’t.
Such withholding of information—brief glimpses into the private lives of the “prisoners”—doesn’t take away from your basic enjoyment of this (intelligently edited) version of the two history plays, but it makes you wish they went further, breaking up the classic (and cutting more of the original) to let more prison weeds poke through.
Still, both parts of Henry IV (which we will see again at BAM this spring, courtesy the Royal Shakespeare Company) resonate intriguingly with motifs of punishment and rehabilitation. Repeated references to redeeming time, reforming oneself, paying debts or plucking glory from an enemy create a world in which power, honor and morality are currency, to be spent or saved—or robbed from someone else. These plays are fundamentally stories about fathers and sons (and surrogates of both) and evident age differences between old-timers in the prison, and jittery, defensive newbies fit nicely into that thematic groove, too.
So while there are dry patches in the intermission-free night (a bit over two hours), the frame still gives you something to think about, and the cast is a lively, diverse mix of veterans and fresh faces. Harriet Walter does marvelous work in the title role, giving her world-weary speeches about a troubled monarch’s sleeplessness heft and gravitas. The charismatic and fiery Iade Anouka makes an appropriately impetuous and motor-mouthed Hotspur. And while I have yet to see a Prince Hal who conveys the inner turbulence and frightening detachment of the character, Dunne has a chilly, appraising hardness that works. I’m not sure I need to see a third Bard behind bars (we already know Denmark’s a prison), but Lloyd and her ferocious ensemble have already made me a repeat offender.—David Cote
St. Ann’s Warehouse (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. No intermission.
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