This concept meets you at the door, actually at the door across the road to be precise. Ticketholders are asked to convene at a bar opposite the Donmar and are then alerted by tannoy that they can enter "the secure unit". Along the road we trooped guided by ushers dressed as prison officers doing their damnedest to look 'ard. The whitewashed stone stairs may have been a culture shock to some but personally I was happy to see them again as this was the original entrance to the Donmar in the 1980s and quickly felt the excitement I always did going up them to see Barbara Cook, Nancy LaMott, Elisabeth Welch etc. No such pleasures tonight.
A door is unlocked and the cast troop in and line up, staring mulishly at the audience, before the signal is given for the play to start. So there's the concept: HENRY IV is being staged by the inmates in a women's prison and during the next two hours it is occasionally interupted when tempers flare between the inmates resulting in the guards appearing to break it up so the play can start again. My problem with the production is that all this distances you from the actual play - an all-female cast, a play-within-a-play, the concepts unfurl like scrims from above to obscure you from the text. Am I supposed to be paying attention to the play or to the action surrounding it?
What was sadly amusing was that all these strenuous efforts to make it an immersive, 'realistic' experience only made it feel more phony. I have no problem with "director" theatre as long as it all goes to serve the play but here I felt at all times Phyllida Lloyd cramming the play into her concept box with no real connection to the text. In it's favour I will say that it was marvellous compared to the staggeringly awful concept production of EDWARD II seen last year at the National.
Another problem I have with such concepts is that while I have no complaints about all-male or all-female casts all I ask is that the actors can speak the text as if they understand it. There was also the aural nightmare of strident Northen Irish or Scottish accents, no doubt incorporated here to make it all the more 'real'.
The pleasures to be had from the production were soley down to performances that transcended the sheer obviousness of it all and gave us fully-rounded characters that justified their casting no matter what their gender.
Rising above them all was Ashley McGuire who was a wonderful Falstaff, making a memorable first appearance sprawled on a sagging football-shaped beanbag chopping up lines of coke. Looking like a stroppy refugee from a benefits cheat t.v. exposé, her Falstaff was the self-appointed life and soul of any party and was eager to be the centre of attention no matter how big the lies to get her there. She spoke the text with real conviction and gusto, finding a natural rhythm in her cockney accent.
The whole prison concept finally paid off in the final minutes when the newly-crowned Hal disowns Falstaff and bans him from the royal presence. McGuire's angry response brought the guards swarming onto the stage and she was frog-marched away in handcuffs sobbing loudly, the character and the performer's fates mirrored.
Another surprisingly effective performance - cutting a swaith through the concept - was from Sharon Rooney as Hotspur's stressed wife Lady Percy. Only a sob away from hysteria, she was very moving in her two small scenes by totally playing it straight down the line. Her final scene denouncing her father-in-law for wanting to perpetuate the killing by citing revenge felt like the heart of the play and I wondered how Lloyd felt that this moment of pure anguish came from a 'real' female character.
Also standing out in a supporting role was Cynthia Errivo who was so memorable as 'Celie' in the Menier's production of the musical THE COLOR PURPLE last year. Here she more than held her own in two roles: as the conniving Poins from Falstaff's band of miscreants and as the tenacious Earl of Douglass who fights with Hotspur against the crown. She was great in the battle scene, lashing out in a martial arts stylee against unseen opponants and there slithering down to stage level from the platform above. She really is one to watch.
Although it was easy to admire Jude Anouka's Hotspur, ultimately her bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the role was wearying and was played too much on one note, surely one should feel some sorrow when Hotspur is killed in battle? It is noted in the play that there is a duality between Hotspur and Prince Hal, almost two sides of the same coin, but like Anouka's strident performance, Clare Dunne's unrelenting loudness - and in a mind-numbing Northern Irish accent too - made me recoil from both her and the character and felt she showed no real depth to Hal. It was a shame too that not more could have been found for the ususally vibrant Jackie Clune to do but she did impress as the vainglorious Owen Glendower.
Oddly I felt no surprises from Harriet Walter as the haunted and troubled Henry IV, she played the role exactly as I suspected she would. Still there were a few moments when she did deliver; in the confrontation scene between the King and the rebellious Worcester (very well played by Ann Ogbomo) and in the deathbed scene when the King is reconciled with his son but fortells the disaster that will befall the country during the War of The Roses. Walter certainly had the right look: looking like a dessicated, drawn old lag, hidden away from any daylight for years.
Up until now I had never seen HENRY IV on stage, my only experience of it being through two excellent filmed adaptations: Orson Welles' haunting CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1966) and Richard Eyre's excellent BBC adaptation for THE HOLLOW CROWN trilogy (2012) so it's a shame I did not feel more disposed towards this production.
I have heard it rumoured that the third in Lloyd's "Shakespeare In The Nick" projects will be KING LEAR... hasn't that poor old bugger suffered enough?