85. Phyllidia Lloyd’s Henry IV (Part 2 of The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy), 2018
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are difficult plays to like, at least for me.
Let me remind you of the plot. Henry finds the crown heavy to wear after deposing Richard II (whose play is the only Shakespeare I loathe). There is a dispute between the king and Harry Percy (nickname Hotspur) and his family over the return of a hostages; the Percys hold out for a quid pro quo:
Why, yet he doth deny his prisoners,
But with proviso and exception,
That we at our own charge shall ransom straight
His brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer[.]
The king senses the rebellious spirit in this family, and insists (rather like Richard II) that his subjects must obey him because he is king.
Meanwhile, the prince, Henry (nickname Hal), fucks about with Shakespeare’s outsized comic character, Falstaff, who claims to be a knight, though one doubts he could produce the proper paperwork. In medieval times before Shakespeare, morality plays dominated the theater in England, in which vices would be personified. Falstaff (A false staff?) is essentially numerous vices (arrogance, cowardice, lust, sloth, untrustworthiness, vanity, weakness) balled up into one gigantic VICE.
If Terry Jones was right, that might apt for a medieval knight.
Hal’s youthful indiscretions are a ruse, however. His long game is to surprise everyone (the enemies of the crown, the populace, and his dad) about how good he will be when the time comes. And a civil war with the Percy family becomes that time.
King Henry IV is a bore of a character. The bickering of the Hotspur clan borders on annoying under the best of circumstances. And maybe there was a time when the hijinks of Falstaff and his incompetent crew seemed funny to me, but I doubt it. The humor is mostly on the level of a Ritz Brothers movie. My Own Private Idaho did well with some of the gags, but frankly, the few lines Kenneth Branagh pilfered for his film of Henry V make the most out of Henry IV’s material.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that The Donmar Trilogy’s version of the play is pretty good, actually.
Like Caesar, this Henry IV takes awhile to grow really good. Harriet Walter plays Hank IV, whose whinging is less annoying than that of the honorable Brutus (from Caesar). The excellent Jade Anouka plays Hotspur, who is in the play quite a bit. While Henry IVis setting up Henry V, Henry IV also exhibits the roles of tribalism and family in English politics. There is some low, but okay humor in the Hotspur scenes. Early on, King Henry works better as an archetype in this play.
Sophie Stanton is our Sir John Falstaff, and her performance is, thankfully, understated enough to allow for some charm. Falstaff’s band of brigands bedecked as football hooligans seems like a perfectly modern fit.
The chief concern with this production is that the Irishwoman Claire Dunne plays Hal, and Dunne really chewwwwws on her vowels. It is Dunne who delivers the prisoner preamble to the play, and she announces that she wants to quit doing drugs after she is released in a few weeks. Her prisoner character (who will enact Hal) says this play is appropriate because it’s theme is change. Since the change of the prince in Henry IV is more about appearances than essences, the claim that the theme is change is preciously stupid—worthy of maybe a C- if made the thesis of a 10thgrade English essay. Maybe I am supposed to extend some leeway to the hopeful, if shallow, interpretation of a prisoner (though she is not actually a prisoner, or at least I don’t think so). This awkwardness is perhaps director Phyllidia Lloyd’s fault.
When Dunne makes her transformation into an ideal Prince Harry, though, she makes her accent less thick, more musical, which means, I think, that her carrying on as Hal was meant to be irritating. I can say from experience that the vulgarity of the Hal-Falstaff scenes are too often treated as if they are comic gold. It’s like hearing someone drone on about the genius of Jim Carrey.
The first half makes us, dear reader, root for Hotspur and the Percy family—and that is actually an interesting twist.
The longer the play goes on, the better it gets, largely due precisely to the prison as context for the performance—the leave-taking of soldiers, for example, perhaps never to be seen by spouses and children again, is quite moving.
The melee between Harry and Hotspur is also gripping (like a brawl in the yard).
The king’s deathbed scene is likewise compelling (which is difficult to render in a way that doesn’t seem hysterically melodramatic); I suspect the tawdry crown sculpted out of flattened aluminum cans adds the right amount of pathos.
This Henry IV makes a lot of the parts of the play that often seem of less interest more interesting, including Prince Henry’s extraordinary first moments of nobility. For that, I am grateful.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.