HENRY IV: DIR PHYLLIDA LLOYD
- Venue: Donmar Warehouse, London
- Director: Phyllida Lloyd
- Designer: Ellen Nabarro
Queuing for Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, I was surprised to see the ushers wielding bullhorns.
The penny only dropped when a fellow theatre-goer asked: “So are you the screws?” Phyllida Lloyd’s 2012 all-female production of Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison earned rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. I saw it three times and only scarcity of tickets stopped me going again.
Successful avoidance of pre-publicity material meant I had no idea the same approach was to be used for Henry IV and I was initially sceptical.
But even a cursory consideration of the plotline reveals that the choice of play makes perfect sense for the framing device. The performers are hardened lags, the main comic action concerns highway robbery, and the principal setting is a tavern-cum-brothel. Updating Falstaff (Ashley McGuire - consistently inventive and a wonderful mimic) to a flat-capped cocaine addict, channelling the trademark energy of Hotspur (Jade Anouka) into a boxing gym, and aligning the theme of imminent acceptance of royal responsibilities by Prince Hal (Clare Dunne, an inmate who has just won parole) with the backdrop of prison discipline, are all devices that underline the logic of Phyllida Lloyd’s approach.
The cast’s naturalistic handling of the dialogue soon convinces us that demotic speech has not changed much over the centuries. However bizarre at first sight, this is the very opposite of a self-indulgent ‘concept’ production and there is credible character development throughout despite the constant violence.
Harriet Walter’s performance as Henry is deliberately understated but she does enough to convince us that she is the source of the general momentum and the senior member of the drama group. On her deathbed, she controls the dynamic of the scene while barely moving a muscle, and as father and son overcome a misunderstanding to be reconciled, we see the reigns of three monarchs sketched out in a prison hospital.
As in Julius Caesar, Lloyd balances the theme of a brutal prison regime with the hopeful message that the performers are finding solace from a group endeavour. I hope that directors from real-life prison drama groups see the production and that their charges receive a fillip from it. This whole approach is so much more intelligent than simple cross-casting and deserves to be imitated. The production is another triumph under the faultless artistic directorship of Josie Rourke who can do no wrong at the Donmar. There is a third of these projects to come. Expectation whirls me round.