Tuesday, 28 October 2014

'Henry IV' at The Donmar Warehouse

I went to see the latest version of Shakespeare's 'Henry IV' at the Donmar last week, the all-woman version set in a prison. I had no idea what to expect so went with an open mind that, sadly, closed as the evening wore on. Rather than go into the theatre we're instructed to meet in a club opposite and wait for instructions. Um, ok. Then we have supposed prison loudspeaker announcements about what to do and we have, quite frankly. scrawny theatre ushers dressed as prison guards escorting us inside and shouting at us. I'm afraid my initial response was 'fuck off' until I realised they were just doing as told and became quieter. Don't shout at me in somewhere I've paid to be or I might get upset. I doubt your scrawny little ushers can handle an upset me.

Sitting watching the stage while waiting for the thing to start and all I could think was, 'this is cheap'. It's probably totally in character for a women's prison but it struck me as cheap as chips and ugly. OK, points scored for realism, but let's see what happens next.

Later than billed and the prisoners are led in through a locked door and they line up. Is this the start of the play? I dunno, but we get a speech and then the prisoners spread round the place. Am I watching a play put on by prisoners or a play put on by prisoners for an audience of prisoners? I dunno. What am I watching? It seems like they're putting on the play and then every now and then there's something that makes me question, such as when Mistress Quickly walks off saying 'I thought we'd agreed not to do this bit' and is then escorted back on by an usher/guard. The play is asking me to think but is it asking me to think the right things?

Harriet Walters played Henry IV in a splayed legs stance and reminded me of Noel Coward in 'The Italian Job', the cock of the prison in charge of everything and can do as he pleases. I thought she was better in the death bed scene. This sort of illustrates what I felt was missing - some light and shade in the characters. Neither Hal nor Hotspur did anything for me, being fully 'on' the whole time and I found Clare Dunne's brash Northern Irish accent very difficult to follow, far too full-on and in your face.

On the other hand, I loved Ashley McGuire as Falstaff, the anti-role model for the prince, and she seemed to revel in the role as well she should. I loved the tension when she strikes the tray in anger that's carried my Mistress Quickly after she's stormed off stage in protest about lines she thought they'd agreed not to say. That fleeting moment of tension added so much to this production. I also liked Cynthia Errivo, particularly her ninja battle with the king's forces, striking them down with every kick and arm flung wide. Cynthia played Celie in 'The Colour Purple' at the Menier Choccy Factory so it's good to see her add another string to her bow.

Did I enjoy the production? No, not really. It looked cheap and employed cheap effects that didn't really work for me. But I'm pleased to have seen it.

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