“What manner of man is he?”
Every time Harriet Walter speaks as the eponymous character, she utterly justifies (not that it needs any justification, mind) the all-female casting of the Donmar Warehouse’s Henry IV, such is the achingly rich poetry that she brings to the verse. Coming in second in what is being loosely termed a ‘prison trilogy’ after a cracking take on Julius Caesar back in 2012, the production reunites director Phyllida Lloyd with Walter and some others from that company to impose their institutional stamp on another of Shakespeare’s works (and yes, it does mean those chairs are back in the stalls!).
Here, the scope of Henry IV Part I and II has been telescoped down to just two hours and in reality, could well be called Henry IV Part I+ as it focuses mainly on a raucously rendered take on that play and throws in excerpts from Act IV Scene V and Act V Scene V from its sequel to round off the stories of Henry IV, Prince Hal and the bounteous Falstaff. It’s an audacious approach but one that really pays off, suggesting that maybe Shakespeare could have done with an editor after all – others may disagree but there’s little that’s really lost in jettisoning a whole heap of supporting characters and their scenes in this instance.
Rather, we get an intense rendering of the relationship between an ageing monarch and their upstart offspring as Walter’s magisterial King Henry IV looks on balefully as Clare Dunne’s wonderfully self-possessed Hal concentrates on carefree carousing rather than the duties of a good prince. Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff makes for a highly understandable distraction though, huge amounts of fun as she works in what must be the first Shakespearean reference to Pulp’s ‘Common People’, and as Hal’s nemesis Hotspur, Jade Anouka is a genuinely thrilling presence.
Setting the show as a performance by women prisoners, as with Julius Caesar, again has its strengths and weaknesses. It allows for cleverness – Hal and Hotspur’s climactic struggle takes place in the boxing ring, the hints of tribalism in the ethnic groupings – but also has a restrictive sense about it too. The breaking of the fourth wall is deployed once again to little substantive effect and in these post-Orange is the New Black times, the bar has been raised in terms of telling nuanced stories about convicts and given this is the second time we’ve seen (some of) this group, I find myself wanting to know something, anything, about the women themselves – what crime has Walter’s perp committed?
Still, there’s much to appreciate and admire here, not least the realisation of this whole project. Ellen Nabarro’s design expands on the functionality of Bunny Christie’s original vision, Gary Yershon’s music brings a couple of spell-binding moments of pure theatre and in a company that mixes freshness and experience, Ann Ogbomo, Zainab Hasan and an extraordinarily accomplished debut from Sharon Rooney stand out. But to hear Harriet Walter remains the biggest pleasure, surely ranking as one of our premier Shakespeareans ever, and the prospect of a concluding production (Lear, it has to King Lear, or maybe The Tempest but I want her Lear) remains a thrilling one.