What happens when a New Year’s resolution clashes with an overwhelming desire to, well, break it so as to get an outstanding artistic experience? This was the conundrum I faced when I realized the Donmar had brought back Phyllida Lloyd to do another Shakespeare – I’d turned down so many shows based on my resolution to see no plays I’d already seen this year, was I going to break it just because I liked the director? It hadn’t been enough for Enemy of the People or the supposedly outstanding View from the Bridge or even the Simon Russell Beale King Lear. But then a solution presented itself: it appeared I had not actually seen this play before, at least not on a stage. Ha HAH! And with a £10 seat happily secured, I made my way to the Donmar guilt free.
Now be warned: you won’t be allowed in the Donmar at the typical entrance until 15 minutes before show time; ticket collection and general milling pre-show all happens across the street. We’re all sent over en masse as if we’re being transported between prisons: or so I assume because I showed up about 5 minutes beforehand so missed most of the sturm und drang and just followed the blue or yellow line to my appropriate seating area, only I stopped paying attention to what the “guard” said as I was looking for the toilet and promptly went into the wrong seating area. So much for us being under lock and key. Frankly, after 7 years of getting the “immigrant special” treatment from UKBA, I found this all very soft touch. It was interesting seeing the inside of the Donmar all lit up with fluorescents and, yes, it did look very industrial, but this really wasn’t hitting the immersive theater level of experience for me.
And … on with the play. Although I hadn’t seen it before, I had very recently read John Julius Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings, so I was on top of the plot as well as the historical truth underneath the story (or occasionally warring with the play): the genuine problem Henry IV (Harriet Walter) was having with rebellions, the fictitious nature of Falstaff, the gross exaggerations of “Hal’s” behavior. The core of the story was a section of comedy, about Prince Hal and Falstaff getting up to tricks, and the ongoing murderous soon to be civil war, with Shakespeare’s overarching narrative of the illegality of Henry IV’s assumption of the throne (nicely told in Richard II).
This time, however, Phyllida Lloyd’s treatment did not hit the kind of emotional heights her Julius Caesar did. The “we’re really in a jail, look, see?” bits seemed forced (the greatest one being when Falstaff tells off the female barkeep), the emotional underpinnings of both the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and the relationship between Hal and his father – these things should have moved me, but they didn’t. I was watching actors playing inmates, but mostly playing characters in a Shakespearean play. The most effective elements were the battle prep and then battle scenes, done as appropriate for women in a prison – a lot of weightlifting, some very effective chin ups, and then for the battle between Hotspur and Harry, a nice boxing ring smash-up that seemed entirely perfect and much more potent in a jail setting.
But, well, that really just makes it a gimmick, don’t you think? Caesar hurt because the actresses were women struggling to make something of their lives behind bars and finding refuge in the bigness of this story; Henry IV was just a play set in a prison. Ah well. It was a fine show and a very good value for £10 but not earthshattering; but at least I’ve finally seen this play.
(This review is for a performance that took place on November 3, 2014. It continues through November 29th.)